Monday, November 1, 2010

Summer Camp: Off the Beaten Path

Source: Barb Levison

Is the beginning of the school year too early to think about summer camp? Not at all! While your tween settles in for a new school year, it is time for you to begin thinking about next summer. Since summer experiences have become such a critical component in tween development, it is never too early to start this research. Summer programming for this age group used to be strictly limited to camp or summer school; but, in the last 3-5 years, options traditionally reserved for high schoolers have become available to tweens. Here are a few opportunities to consider:
Community Service
In recent years there has been a growing demand for community service programs for tweens. Today, it is not uncommon to find a service program in Costa Rica for kids finishing 7th grade or a marine conservation program in the British Virgin Islands for 8th graders. There are even 2-week programs in the United States - with a service component - for kids as young as 6th grade. These programs can spark an early passion for service in children that may guide them throughout their high school and college years. While some programs provide more service hours than others, all offer age appropriate fun and adventure to provide a good balance to the service work. A typical day may include several hours of service before lunch and an afternoon of exploration and/or adventure.
Adventure Trips
Several companies offer adventure trips for tweens. These trips are typically 2-3 weeks long and encompass a multitude of activities such as rock climbing, hiking, biking, white-water rafting, surfing, or caving. The level of difficulty is geared appropriately for this younger age set. Many also include a leadership component. A tween who is up for the challenge of learning new skills and living in a rustic environment typically thrives on trips such as these. The level of supervision on adventure trips and service programs for tweens is an essential component in choosing the appropriate program. When asking about how much time the adult leaders on tween trips spend with the group, the answer should be 24/7. Parents of tweens who have participated often report that their tweens return more mature and confident.
Academic Enrichment
Like community service, academic enrichment programs are no longer just for high school students. Many enrichment programs now include tweens. They are housed together, separate from the high school students, and the offerings vary from traditional academics, like math or writing, to pure enrichment, like photography or dance. This allows almost any tween to find classes that fit their extracurricular or academic interests. Most of these tween programs also include elective physical activities and supervised evening events. For added benefit, some even offer optional study skills classes -- something that many middle school parents are looking for in their children's summer programming. Note that most enrichment programs are just that: "enrichment" and do not provide remedial academic tutoring. Many also include an ESOL component for international students, so you can expect your tween to meet children from around the world. Unlike high school age "pre college" enrichment programs where the students have built in unsupervised time and often have to use judgment in making the right choices regarding how to spend this time, parents should be sure to choose a tween program that is more closely supervised and has a more structured schedule.
Just Regular Camp!
Many parents grapple with whether their kids are "too old" to start sleepaway camp. The short answer is no, as long as they are careful to choose the right fit. There are certainly some camps where children tend to start at 8 or 9 years old, and it would be unusual for a tween to begin. However, there are countless camps where children are starting as new campers at almost any age. When sending a tween as a new camper, parents should speak to the director and have the child placed in a cabin with at least one other new camper. Be sure to ask how many children are new to this age group and whether or not the group is welcoming to new campers. All directors like to think that their camp is a warm and welcoming place, but ask the specific questions to make sure that your tween is walking into a successful camp experience!
Specialty Camps
While some tweens return year after year to traditional sleepaway camps, some feel they have outgrown their camps by 12 or 13. Many of these tweens switch to specialty camps in either sports or the arts. Again, be sure to inquire of the directors as to how many new campers are typical in your child's age group. Also ask about the level of skill, if any, required in the specialty. You might not want your novice tween to attend a program for kids who already have a level of proficiency. If the camp caters to all levels, be sure to inquire about the ages of the other beginners. Your 11 or 12 year old probably wouldn't be thrilled about the prospect of being grouped for instruction with 8 and 9 year olds! These specialty camps can offer anything from intricate arts such as stained glass, glass bead jewelry making and silversmithing; to sports such as lacrosse, tennis or field hockey; to culinary arts or photography So if you sense that you tween is showing an interest or talent in a specific sport or hobby, there is probably a specialty camp that is just the right fit.

When thinking about what type of summer activity may suit your tween, keep the following questions in mind:
Is my child ready to travel abroad? (As with some of the service or language programs)
Is my child ready to experience the challenge of a traveling adventure trip or would she be better suited to a more traditional camp with opportunities for out-of-camp trips?
Does my child possess the independence necessary to live with a roommate in a dorm setting or does he still need the nurturing cabin environment of a traditional camp?
Is my tween ready to travel alone (unaccompanied minor possibly) or should I find something closer to home?

References for any type of summer program are a must! Ask the director for the names and telephone numbers of at least two families who have attended within the last two summers from your general vicinity. If a director is hesitant to give you references, eliminate that program. They should readily provide these names and contacts.
Remember, in the tween years the most important factor regarding "readiness" for any experience is the child's enthusiasm and willingness to try something new, and in some cases, something very different than anything they have done before. Most of these programs have no prerequisites for tweens other than a willing participant with a positive attitude. While forcing a child is never a good idea, encouraging him to try a new experience may be the start of many years of wonderful summer memories.

Barb Levison is an advisor with Tips on Trips and Camps, a free service that helps parents find overnight camps and summer programs for children ages 8-18. Barb can be reached at or 646-719-1149.

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