The word “camp” might conjure certain images — burnt marshmallows, awkward archery lessons and stinky latrines. However, that’s not the case for today’s children — and their parents — who have increasingly found a modern approach to their camp experience. New-age day to overnight camps offer summertime rituals, which enhance both learning and imagination.
Modern camp activities can complement and expand interests in science, animals, art and books while accommodating active students, children with disabilities or families. Camp-goers still have the opportunity to appreciate the outdoors while building a strong foundation with friends, counselors and staff.
Students can get a firsthand account of a lone shipwreck survivor whose Great Lakes freighter went down in 1966. Students at Case Western Reserve University’s Leonard Gelfand STEM Center in Cleveland can participate in Shipwreck Camp. Each year, Dennis Hale provides an account of floating for 40 hours in a life raft with the bodies of three crewmates. The powerful tale is a perennial highlight of the camp.
The two-week day camp also gives students a chance to hone their explorer skills as it’s based on the research and exploration of Dr. Robert Ballard, father of the JASON Project and finder of the Titanic wreckage.
Campers will talk to an archaeologist from the Great Lakes Historical Society and learn how scientists find and document shipwrecks from the Cleveland Underwater Explorers group. They build and test a remote-controlled vehicle that can be used to explore underwater, and learn important lessons in buoyancy by taking a basic Discover SCUBA class.
“This is an opportunity for kids to do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do in the classroom,” says Kathryn Kwiatkowski, director of the Leonard Gelfand STEM Center. “They use tools that real scientists use.”
Ellen Siebenschuh said Shipwreck Camp was a perfect supplement to her daughter Claire’s interest in science. She notes the 12-year-old was excited about the camp and especially its outdoor field trips. “It was a learning experience, but it didn’t feel like school.”
The Summit of Fun
While the Shipwreck Camp has a focused approach, Kent State University’s PEAK (Playful Education & Adventures for Kids) day camp introduces a variety of themes throughout its 10-week offerings.
The Department of Recreational Services offers the camp. It’s high-energy with daily swimming, outdoor activities, sports and games. Families choose among themed weeks, signing up for one or several.
Children through age 15 may enroll in the Leaders in Training Camp, in which they help plan activities and participate in age-appropriate programs, says Abby Millsaps, the camp’s marketing coordinator. For example, during last summer’s Super Heroes Week, the younger children played games, dressed up and made crafts, while the older ones learned about real-life superheroes such as firefighters.
“I think parents are looking first and foremost for safety and an engaging camp that the kids will come home and have something new to talk about,” Millsaps says. With potential camp themes such as “Express Yourself” — arts, building, acting and painting — or “Magic and Wizard Week,” that shouldn’t be difficult. As in many cases with camps, PEAK makes modifications for children with disabilities and encourages them to do as many of the activities as possible.
Day Camp Adventures
Lake Metroparks in Kirtland offers spring break and summer camps. Some take place at the park system’s Lake Farmpark, during which children learn about the variety of farm animals that are housed on the property.
Others, such as an adventure camp, allow students to explore waterfalls, to kayak and to rock climb. Children can also go on a beach adventure or attend the Wild Encounters Camp based at the Wildlife Center in Penitentiary Glen in Willoughby.
Overnight Camp Adventures
While a day camp may be just the right fit for your child, the extra bonding, camaraderie and self-assurance that develop at an overnight camp can be a delightful alternative.
Dave Devey has owned Falcon Camp in Carrollton (just 30 miles south of Cleveland) since 1984. Boys and girls ages 6-16 go for two-, four-, six- or eight-week increments, and enjoy what he calls an “old-fashioned, traditional summer camp.”
Falcon Camp was established in 1959, which Devey attended as a child. Like other traditional summer camps, Devey sees long-term friendships fostered in a camp environment, among campers as well as the counselors. Tennis, crafts, horseback riding, video and photography, target shooting, swimming and many other activities are part of the fun. Students come from 15 to 18 states and other countries, but most generally are from Cleveland, Columbus and Pittsburgh.
Sessions are divided by gender, but some activities are co-ed. Devey said he has found campers tend to thrive in a single-gender environment, especially when they are away from home for a lengthy period of time.
“It’s a remarkable environment, and it’s very hard to put on paper,” he said. “One thing we hope to accomplish is having a camper tell a parent, ‘I learned to canoe,’ not just ‘I went canoeing.’ (These) are more in-depth activities. We want them to have fun, but we also want them to learn what they are doing.”
Chris John of Aurora discovered Falcon Camp last year. His family was looking for a creative camp experience for his children, Ricky, 12, and Catherine, 9. An Internet search provided plenty of options, yet his family was drawn to an overnight camp such as Falcon Camp and the wide-range of activities it could provide in a nurturing, exciting and — yes — somewhat primitive environment in the middle of the country.
John and his wife met with the camp director, who addressed all of their questions. That meeting determined that an overnight camp — a first for the John children — would be a comfortable environment. Ricky and Catherine went for two weeks and were ready to go back again immediately, John says.
“Camp can be a combination of freedom with discipline,” he explains. “It’s a highly structured environment and every minute is carefully planned and monitored, but everything the kids do is play. They try things they’ve never done before. (My) kids, for example, decided they loved sailing and it gave them confidence.”
Falcon Camp counselor Anna Faxon had attended the camp for five years. An Ithaca College student, she will be a returning staff member. “I was never homesick because the camp environment was comfortable for me. The counselors talked to me and helped, and I had a sense of independence that I didn’t have at home.”
Choosing a Camp
Parents can do several things to make sure their child has a great camp experience.
Dennis Elliot of American Camp Association (ACA), Ohio, said parents should talk to the person in charge of the camp. Learn how the staff and counselors are chosen and make sure the camp director shares your values. Talk to people whose children attended the camp.
Parents can think about questions such as “Does your child get along easily with others?” “Is a day camp better for them than an overnight camp?” “Does your child prefer to play on teams?” “Would he or she be interested in a camp with sports or have an academic focus?”
Elliot recommends considering ACA-accredited camps. The association’s program accredits more than 2,400 camps and ensures each one meets up to 300 standards for health, safety and excellence. Since 2002, ACA-accredited day camps have increased 69 percent, residential camps by 21 percent.
With all the great camps available, the only person who really knows if a camp is the right place for your child is you, the parent. Do your homework, then let the summer fun begin.
Check out a directory of local summer camps here.
Marie Elium is a freelance writer in Garrettsville.