Blake Jeffrey-White, 9, is in fourth grade at St. Francis of Assisi. He’s been to a variety of specialty and day camps throughout the Cleveland area, including camps at Fairmount Center for the Arts, Camp Gilmour, Camp Invention and a camp at Cleveland Metroparks, to name a few.
In choosing a camp, Cindy Jeffrey, Blake’s mom, says her son drew on the activities that he enjoyed during the school year, and they asked him if he wanted to expand on those activities.
“In the last few years, I would give him the camp catalog and say, ‘Buddy, circle which of these that are interesting to you,’” Jeffrey says. “For example, ‘Do you have an interest in building a robot?’”
After he looked at the catalog, Jeffrey says it was a matter of how the different camps all fit into their summer schedule, but basically, “We would have him select what he was interested in.”
If there was something new that they wanted him to try, Jeffrey says the 9-year-old was open to suggestions.
“Sometimes, he loved it, and other times, he didn’t love it,” she says. “So it was a good way for us to explore those interests of his.”
Many kids like Blake, when given the opportunity, would explore camp activities to try and learn new things. For others, focusing on a specialized camp helps them hone that skill.
When considering a summer camp, parents should decide what is the best fit for their child: explore new things or refine existing skills.
Blake has tried a variety of new things at summer camps and continues to enjoy the diverse experiences, Jeffrey says.
Blake has been involved in specialty camps that range from sports in which he’s interested — such as hockey, basketball, baseball, karate and swim camps — to STEM camps, like Camp Invention. He also has participated in a lot of educational camps at Gilmour Academy, some of which Jeffrey says are very specialized. One camp taught him how to build a robot, and another was a chess camp.
“I found it really fostered and nurtured his enjoyment of something very particular, like chess,” Jeffrey says. “I didn’t know my son loved chess. Now, after a week of camp, I know that he really enjoyed it.”
Jeffrey says the sports camps certainly increased Blake’s skills during the off-season, as well as keeping him interested and engaged in the sport or activity.
Rhonda Rickelman, director of auxiliary programming at Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, says summer camps can provide opportunities for kids to explore offerings not available in other settings.
“We try to give kids specialty opportunities in different areas that they might want to explore,” Rickelman says. “For example, we have hockey, figure skating, stroke development for swimming, technology camps and STEM camps. We have cooking experiences for the kids, and we have chess, sewing, drones, Mission Fit, Sky High Adventure and Etiquette Camp. We have some offerings that the kids might not want to do a lot of, but that they might get a good feel for, so we like to let kids dabble in things.”
Take a Deep Dive Into Skill-Building
Specialty camps can be for those who excel in a certain area, but also for those who show an interest in a specific area.
Jeannie Fleming-Gifford, executive director of Fairmount Center for the Arts, says specialty camps give children a chance to “deep dive into a specific art form.”
Summer is a great time to explore new interests, she says, but “it’s also a time to be able to focus on things that maybe during the school year, it’s a little bit harder to devote the time to specific areas, specifically in the arts.”
Fleming-Gifford says there often are pressures to commit children, even as young as age 9, to particular activities or pursuits. Summer camps, though, are a chance to break out of the mold of the everyday.
“We should give them a chance to not only be a specialist, but allow them to get involved in something new and different, too.” she says. “They play soccer all year round, but in the summer, may say, ‘I might like to try art; I might like to try dance; and I might like to do theater and perform on stage.’ Specialty camps give even novice students a chance to try something new. They may not have a lot of experience, but they have an interest or they’re curious, so specialty camps give them a time in the summer to really be exposed to new art forms, learn new skills and have some fun.”
The benefits of specialty camps include building a technique and skill-building in a specific discipline, and creating well-rounded, curious people who are exposed to different things, she says.
“I’ve always been taught as an educator to think about ‘scanners’ versus ‘divers.’” Fleming-Gifford says. “It’s great to have people who know a lot about a lot of different things, but we also know society values people who have in-depth knowledge, skills and specialties in certain areas. These specialty camps are really about those divers. It’s giving kids in-depth, immersive, hands-on and, dare I say fun, experiences in specific arts-based activities.”
She advises that families put together a plan for summer camp if they want to give kids optimal opportunities to be exposed to a variety of different things. Maybe, she says, that includes specialty camps kids have already had experience with, or others that may be new to them.
As kids get older, they tend to engage in more specialty camps, find more things they are interested in and they branch out into something different, Gilmour Academy’s Rickelman says.
“Kids, when they’re young, are not sure what they like — but a camp is a good way to find out,” she says. “Maybe they talk about gardening or helping in the garden, then they come to a nature-based camp. Or maybe they are interested in chess and they really want to craft that. We can play chess at camp, but to have an expert come in and teach them more about it, or to teach them certain moves, those are the things that take them to a level that says this might turn into a hobby, or this might turn into something that I really want to put in as part of my repertoire as a person.”
Kids Can Refine Talents
YMCA of Greater Cleveland offers sports camp and day camp programming across the region.
Ryan Holesko, program director of the Sports Camp at the YMCA of Greater Cleveland, says kids can practice a skill at camp, further develop that skill, and then take it with them when they play sports in school or become part of a community team.
“One benefit that we run into on the sports side a lot, especially for our younger ages, is this is their first time experiencing a sport at the team level,” he says. “It encourages them to join a team and play more, especially after the summer is over.”
There are 10 branches of the Y in Cleveland and each one runs a sport-specific camp throughout the summer. Each week, campers engage in a new sport, complete with drills, scrimmages and other sports-related activities aimed at improving kids’ sports skills through friendly competition, teamwork and making new friends.
“This is not a boot camp where we make fun of the kids that can’t perform well and only reward those who do extremely well,” says Rick Batyko, executive director of marketing at the YMCA of Greater Cleveland. “It’s more about the philosophy of the camp experience for us.”
At Gilmour Academy, Rickelman says approximately 30 to 35 percent of the kids who register for camp will participate in at least one specialty camp, each of which focus on a particular skill or aspect of a game, as opposed to a general approach.
“For example, if we have a hockey camp, we don’t just have a hockey camp, it will be a power skating camp, because you are going to learn how to skate. That’s the key to the camp,” she says. “Another camp is called Big Shot Shooting Lab, so you are going to learn shooting skills instead of just general play. It takes you to another level of your game.”
However, she says while kids naturally are drawn to the sport or activity in which they’re involved and developing, there is danger in over-specializing for young kids.
“Take swimming, for example: you swim all year, and then you swim all summer, so when do you get a break?,” Rickelman says. “And those breaks are so important. When adults work, we take vacations, but do the kids take breaks from this kind of stuff?”
Based on her own experience as a coach of 20 years, Rickelman says each year, kids need three to four weeks off from whatever activity they are doing — and it should be completely off.
“Take time to refresh, renew, bring yourself back in and do something fun — don’t be so scheduled all of the time,” she says. “Kids need downtime to regroup with normal dinner hours, normal play time, normal sleep, where they’re not rushing from one event to the next.
When choosing the right camp, she says, communication between kids and their parents is important. Rickelman suggests parents ask kids what they really want to do. Sit down with them and pose questions like, “What camp would you like to go to?” “What would you like to do?” or “How can we make this a good experience?”
After a first exposure, if your child demonstrates interest, then it’s time to send them to a specialty camp, she adds, particularly if they can identify specific aspects or skills upon which they want to improve.
Either way, it’s important that children drive the decision of what to do each summer.
“There are very good parents who say to their kids, ‘Hey take a look, are you interested in any of this?’” Rickelman says. “But we also have people that just sign their kids up. Then, I will say, ‘Don’t you want to be in this camp?’ and they go, ‘No, my mom signed me up for this.’”