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The Washington Times

Moving Beyond S’mores

Summer camps home in on children's specialties

By Amy Doolittle

Children once went to summer camp to swim and sing "Kumbaya" with their friends while roasting marshmallows around the fire. Now, at camps such as Pali Overnight Adventureson Lake Arrowhead in Southern California, parents who want their children to get in touch with the great outdoors can send them on summer adventures like Spa and Well-Being Camp, Fashion Camp and Rock Star Camp. Specialty camps are gaining popularity and now make up about 20 percent of the roughly 10,000 overnight summer camps in the United States, says Jeff Solomon, executive director at the National Camp Association. Camps that focus on specific subjects and education are attractive to both parents and teens because of the learning experience involved, says Mr. Solomon. "I think that kids today are totally different than the kids we saw 20 years ago," says Tina Krinsky, co-owner of Julian Krinsky Camps and Programs. "Today's have passions. They want to specialize. They really have something they want to focus on and get very good at." What attracts children to Pali Overnight Adventures, says the company's marketing director, Melanie Senior, are the scope of choices and attitude of the staff. "These days, teenagers are looking to have the respect the way adults are treated, so giving them choices is very attractive," she says.

The Pali program offers about 18 specializations in which the children can participate during the morning. Afternoons are spent working on a different specialization, separate from the program for which they enrolled. But specialization is not necessarily attractive to every age group, says Eric Swanson-Dexel, director of Camp Hammer, a traditional camp tucked away in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Boulder Creek, Calif. "It's true that campers want to bring home some knowledge and understanding from their experience at camp. But I think we live in a society that's always telling kids that they need to have a specialization," he says. It might not be the children who are pushing for the expensive, education-driven programs, he says. "I think it's the parents that want to say their kids have learned a specialization," Mr. Swanson-Dexel says. But Mrs. Krinsky, who has operated camps since 1977, says both specialization and focus are desired because they are the societal norm. "We just live in a time now where kids don't play the way they did 20 years ago," she says. "Now everything is organized. They have outside stimulation - kids today are dropped off even from yoga to this and that." Old-fashioned camps offer children the chance to "feel nature," Mr. Swanson-Dexel says, something that is not available to them elsewhere and that specialized camps may not offer. "Kids enjoy that they get to use their own imagination and it's not something that's created for them," he says. "They get to be in nature away from technology and media that they face every day." The number of specialized camps across the nation may be increasing, says Mr. Solomon, because their focus is on older teens. "Kids are going [to summer camps] at older ages than ever before," he says. "All of the sudden, it's cool to keep going to camp when you are 16, 17 and even 19 years old." But why are camps suddenly attractive to the older set? The explanation, says Mr. Solomon, can be found in the deconstruction of the traditional, nuclear family. "Hanging out in the schoolyard is no longer a safe option," he says. "Grandma isn't down the block, nuclear families are not the same, and the need for summer camp is that much greater. The biggest change is that 20 years ago camp was a luxury item.

Today, camp is a necessity." This summer, Mr. Solomon says, between 6.5 million and 7 million children will attend American camps. About 20 percent of these children will come from overseas. Parents around the world are becoming more interested in sending their children to American summer camps, Mr. Solomon says, because they are interested in exposing their children to different cultures and types of people. "There's been a large influx of international campers. Kids in this country that go to camps are suddenly in a melting pot and coming away learning other cultures," he says. At Pali, which typically sells out its camps, about 50 percent of the counselors and 20 percent of the children are international. Despite the growing interest in special classes, Mr. Solomon says, an element of traditionalism will prevail. He said specialty camps probably will never be as popular as the typical woods-and- cabin experience. "The traditional general camp is still the most popular form and will probably always be because it's very attractive to families. Camp is a multigenerational phenomenon. Parents still want kids to experience what they experienced," he says.

Source: The Washington Times - May 4, 2005