Camp is still champ

The wholesome atmosphere, a nurturing sense of community, and exposure to the wonders of nature are drawing a new generation of kids to spend a few weeks at summer camp.

It used to be that only college applicants were "wait-listed." Without the thrill of a fat acceptance letter or the blow of rejection, these high school students were left waiting to see if their names would come up. Now a younger crowd is experiencing - albeit to a lesser degree - a similar waiting game. As more and more parents sign up their children for overnight camp, the waiting lists at some of these summertime havens are long enough to rival those at Ivy League schools.

Of course, you don't have to be a scholar or a star athlete to get into summer camp. But it helps if you're an early bird. These days, families that don't commit to camp by December, or January at the latest, had better come up with a Plan B. According to the American Camping Association, summer camp enrollment has increased by nearly 10 percent each year since 1992.

Many camps take names and deposits as early as the last day of camp for the following year, and they no longer offer early-bird incentives such as a tuition discount. A guaranteed spot is incentive enough.

With all the options available to kids these days, it may seem puzzling that overnight summer camps are thriving. Some of the increased popularity has to do with changing family structure - working parents need to book their children for the summer, and single parents want time to catch their breath.

The economy has also played a part; some families who profited during recent boom years can now afford camp. Those who normally couldn't afford it are taking advantage of more available scholarship money. And camps are also doing a better job at promoting themselves.

But interviews with parents, children, educators, and camp directors reveal that camp has an even deeper, more meaningful purpose. It appears to fill an important niche for children today, and parents are recognizing that more and more. The wholesome, relaxed outdoor environment provides a welcome respite from our fast-paced, electronics-crazy world, and the sense of community at camp - missing from many children's lives - can be extremely nurturing and instructive.

Robin Fan recognizes the value of both aspects of camp and wasted no time signing up her two daughters, ages 11 and 14, for another year at the Aloha Foundation's girls camps in Fairlee, Vt. "They need a break from the rat race," says the Newton, Mass., mother, who attended the same camps.

"Unless a child's family has a vacation house where they can just veg out during the summer, I don't know how other kids unwind from the intensity of the school year."

She laughs when contrasting her parents' motives for sending her off to camp: "They didn't want me to have a break. They wanted a break from me!"

Motives aside, camp made a strong impression on Ms. Fan. Every summer, she cried when she left home, but she cried even harder when leaving camp. "I felt so connected," she recalls. "It's also a time when you become really sensitized to nature, like during those early mornings when everything is quiet and beautiful, and you see those fairy spiderwebs on the lawn. And those traditions ... I don't know how many families are really building traditions these days. And nothing changes there. It's important for kids to see that some things really can stay the same."

The sense of connectedness that Fan speaks of runs deep for many people. Sixteen-year-old Brendan Flannery, for example, says that's what is pulling him back to Camp Belknap, a YMCA camp on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, for his fourth consecutive year. This year Brendan will be a "leader in training."

"It's such an awesome place," he says. "I forget all my problems when I'm there. What most stands out for me is the sense of community."

Christopher Thurber, Camp Belknap's waterfront director, whom Brendan describes as "a friendly face you can talk to about anything," has a lot to say about camp and community. "It's what keeps kids coming back," he insists.

"Adults think the best thing about camp is the outdoorsy experience, but kids are drawn to the community aspect. This is what helps them make friends, gain social skills and self-confidence, and nurture their independence. Everyone talks about the 'magic' of summer camp. It's community living that performs this magic."

Some of the same skills can be developed at day camp, says Thurber, but they are easier to accomplish at overnight camp, since community-living away from home in a beautiful, natural setting is such a special experience.

For many children, camps also provide their only exposure to spiritual education. Religious camps are common, but even those without a "religious" element often include blessings at meals and host inspirational meetings on Sunday mornings and at campfires during the week. "Parents today really appreciate this," says Thurber.

When he's not teaching the backstroke on the lake, Mr. Thurber counsels boys at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. After 21 summers at Camp Belknap, he has become quite an expert. He recently co-wrote "The Summer Camp Handbook" with his fellow senior staffer Jon Malinowski ($14.95, Perspective Publishing).

He laments that only about two dozen camps remain of the original 100 on Lake Winnipesaukee. "Some camps just couldn't make it, but more often developers would make an offer they just couldn't refuse."

Dick Thomas, director of Camp Chewonki, located on a 400-acre peninsula in Wiscasset, Maine, is thankful that his camp forefathers went the nonprofit route in the early 1960s. "We have a mile of deep-water frontage that developers would have tried to gobble up in a minute," he says.

Mother Cheryl Blair is also relieved that that didn't happen. With its emphasis on environmental education, wilderness trips, and low-key, noncompetitive fun, Camp Chewonki has had a tremendously positive influence on her two sons, Justin and Jesse. In fact, she says, "they have made it their lifestyle."

Both boys went off to Chewonki in elementary school, she explains, and have returned almost every year. This summer, as 21- and 24-year-olds, they are returning once again - as counselor and assistant director.

"They have learned community, cooperation, and a deep appreciation for the wonders of the natural world," Ms. Blair says. "And they got to sail, kayak, and walk parts of the Appalachian Trail. They certainly can't do those things in our backyard!"

Of course, the right fit for Justin and Jesse could be the wrong fit for someone else, she says. "I combed long and hard before choosing Chewonki. I think it's crucial to choose a camp with thoughtful, bright, enlightened staffers who will be great role models for your kids."

Indeed, with so many choices, it can be a daunting decision. Camps appear so impressive in those slick brochures. But judging a camp by its promotional materials is like judging a car by its color, says Thurber, who devotes 20 pages to this topic in his book. To become a savvy camp consumer, he writes, it's essential to evaluate five basic elements: features, character, quality, service, and cost.

His friend Bob Ditter, a Boston-area family therapist who speaks to groups about the benefits of summer camp, would add one more thing: "If you really want to know how nurturing a camp is," he says, "look for stuffed animals on the beds. At the best camps, even 12-year-olds will feel free to snuggle up to a teddy bear at night."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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