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The Purpose-Driven Summer Camp

Toasting marshmallows is for slackers. Now kids aim to sharpen their skills and boost their resumes. Is that a good thing?

By Michele Orecklin - with reporting by Leslie Whitaker/Chicago and Rebecca Winters/Los Angeles

The competition of a three-legged race could be brutal - and having your bunk short-sheeted humiliating - but most adults remember sleepaway camp as a relatively carefree experience, a respite from school and siblings and a departure from the pressures of normal life. Kids who went to private overnight camps spent weeks in bucolic settings, discovering activities they enjoyed and gamely participating in those they didn't. There were bug bites and bad food, but the day's biggest challenge often centered on rowing a canoe to the other side of the lake or roasting a marshmallow without burning it.

Russell Lyons sees things a bit differently. The 10-year-old from San Diego is hoping summer camp will help foster his career in the film industry. Last summer he spent a week at Pali Overnight Adventures' Hollywood Stunt Camp in California's San Bernardino Mountains. There he got professional instruction on taking 40-ft. free falls onto mats and choreographing fight scenes. Says Lyons, who already has an agent and occasionally leaves school early to go to auditions: "If I ever have to do my own stunts on a shoot, I'm ready."

Fading fast are the days when parents sent their kids to camp with goals no loftier than getting them out of the house and into nature. Experts say parents want their kids working toward a tangible skill or having a high-caliber experience, preferably one that looks good on a college application. And today's kids, so accustomed to being overscheduled and overstimulated during the school year, are at risk for getting bored if left undirected in summer. As a result, camp owners say, the number of specialty camps that focus on acquiring a skill that stands out on a résumé is growing and--to the distress of some traditionalists--the enthusiasm of campers is shifting toward such camps and away from those that offer a range of general-interest activities. "If a child can explore something he's passionate about at age 10, like photography, he's got a head start," says Barry Vigon, camp director for Pali Overnight Adventures, which, in addition to Hollywood Stunt Camp, operates Secret Agent Camp, Acting Academy, Spa Camp and Rock Star Camp (price: $1,435 for a one-week session). "We've come to realize that camp is much more than recreation," says Marla Coleman, past president of the American Camp Association (ACA). "It's a total education experience."

An estimated 6 million U.S. kids will go to camp this summer, according to the National Camp Association, a referral service for the industry, packing off to one of about 10,000 different campuses (about two-thirds are sleepaway facilities). While some specialty camps, such as those focusing on tennis or music, have been around for a long time, they often catered to older kids who were already highly proficient and dedicated to their field. Lately, however, younger kids are going to camp for marine biology, drama, video production, computer games, fashion design, improved etiquette, community service and pedicure techniques. At traditional camps as well, kids are being allowed to select a few skills on which they'd like to concentrate during the day and to de-emphasize those they don't like. The laser-beam focus is fitting for the modern kid, contends Tina Krinsky, who with her husband runs Julian Krinsky Camps & Programs, based in the Philadelphia area. "For a child used to all kinds of technology, sitting by the lake just isn't enough anymore," she says. Her company offers a variety of programs, including camps specializing in tennis, golf, cooking and business. Krinsky argues that kids are so sophisticated that they know what they want to do at a much earlier age. "When kids get to us, they are so directed," she says, "we don't have to do anything to motivate them."

Today's camp curricula seem tailored to another aspect of modern childhood: short attention spans. Camper Lyons is still hoping for a film career, but, according to his mother Leslye Winkelman Lyons, he's interested in "10 other things as well," so this summer he plans to move on from stunt work and attend another of Pali Overnight Adventures' programs, this one in culinary arts, run by a former chef to the Saudi royal family. As he did last summer, Lyons will spend his mornings receiving special instruction and his afternoons participating in his choice of such activities as paintball and swimming. His mother says she appreciates his being able to do "kid" things while still reaping the expertise of professionals.

While Lyons is looking forward to being back in the mountains, he does not anticipate reconnecting with old friends. "I don't keep in touch with any of the other kids," he says. "I liked the counselors better." That may have to do with the fact that he spent only a week in the program, a stint that is becoming more and more common, according to experts. Unlike the old days, when many camps offered eight-week sessions, today kids tend to schedule shorter periods at different camps back-to-back in order to hone a variety of skills.

Nancy Soschin finds the transformation disturbing. Soschin runs Summer Solutions, a consultancy group that guides parents to appropriate camps for their kids. "There is still a big population of kids, particularly in the Northeast, who go to traditional eight-week camps, learning to become independent and experiencing all the wonderful things that happen in growing up," says Soschin. "But now people have this attitude that they also need to learn something new or find a way to get ahead in school. To me, it's grossly unfortunate, because kids are so stressed out. The fact that they have to perform at camp as well is a little sad," she laments. "They'll go to tennis camp one week, computer camp another and acting class for a third, and then their parents say, 'He's got a week open in July before a family vacation. What kind of camp can we shove in then?'" Soschin has no problem with specialized camps in theory, but she thinks many kids are being made to focus too early. "I wouldn't send an 8-year-old to baseball camp," she says. "It's too intense. They learn the sport from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., then watch a video after dinner, which is usually about baseball. It's just not camp. Kids that age could go to traditional camps."

Taking a decidedly untraditional route, many teenagers are pursuing an opportunity more akin to the Peace Corps than camp. Gordy Kaplan, executive director of the Midwest Association of Independent Camps, says community-service camps are the hottest development in the field. Particularly popular, other experts say, are those programs in which participants travel to remote parts of the U.S. and to foreign countries to help local populations. Last summer Ryan McNeill, 16, of Lake Forest, Ill., went to Costa Rica with the Road Less Traveled. At a cost of $3,995 for 22 days, McNeill and his group stayed in a small town and made improvements to the local school, replacing the roof and building bathrooms. "It was a chance to see another country from a different perspective, not a hotel, and to actually meet people in the culture," he says. He is also mindful of the program's other benefits, noting that the trip gave him 75 community-service hours, partially satisfying a requirement for membership in the National Honor Society.

Perhaps inevitably, such frenetic activity, combined with rising concerns about health and fitness, has led to another trend: camps for wellness. Tina Krinsky likes to think her company kicked off the rage four years ago when it launched a partnership with the upscale spa Canyon Ranch on the campus of Bryn Mawr College ($1,445 a week) in Bryn Mawr, Pa. She asserts that even though the male and female campers have the option of the occasional pedicure or facial, they spend the majority of their time exercising, working with personal trainers, learning about proper nutrition and getting serene through meditation and yoga. Says Mimi Klein of Sarasota, Fla., whose daughter Allison, 15, is heading back this summer for the second time: "I felt pretty strongly that it was important for a teenage girl to have a strong sense of self and understand how to take care of her body and mind as she went into high school," she says. Even some old-fashioned camps are joining the mind-and-body movement. The Kenwood camp in New Hampshire, a place about as woodsy and canoe laden as they come, plans to offer guided meditation and yoga this summer. "Kids are open to a lot more now," says camp owner Scott Brody, "in part because their parents have gotten more into health as well."

The happy medium, as some camps have discovered, is combining specialty pursuits with old-fashioned recreation, creating a balance between work and play. At Emagination Computer Camps, which has locations in Waltham, Mass., Atlanta, Lake Forest, Ill., and the suburbs of Philadelphia, kids spend the day in three tech workshops, choosing among such options as building PCs, designing computer games and wiring toy robots. But they are also required to participate in one session a day of what the camp calls retro games. Among them: Ultimate Frisbee, kickball and swimming. Ah, wilderness!

Source: TIME Magazine- May 30, 2005