Now camps combine canoeing, campfires, computers

They've done it again. Computers have entered yet another area of human life, and this time they have made their way into the land of toasted marshmallows and short-sheeting: the summer camp.

Computer camps are the latest of the different kinds of specialty camps offering camp-goers that extra edge on the tennis court, the soccer field, or the bathroom scale.

This year the computer camps are making their biggest bid ever for a slice of the summer fun and self-improvement market. Established groups are more than doubling their locations and enrollments, and new camps are being started.

Exact figures are hard to find, but it appears the number of young people ranging in ages from 9 to 18 who attended computer camps last summer was in the hundreds. This year thousands are expected.

''Good ideas . . . people copy them,'' said Mike Flaks, an administrative director of National Computer Camps in Connecticut, which at five years old is the granddaddy of computer camps.

* National has opened a new camp in Atlanta and plans to serve 900 campers this year.

* Computer Camps International, now in its second year, is expanding its Connecticut program to Wisconsin and Texas and expects an enrollment of about 1, 500.

* On the West Coast, Computer Camp Inc. of California will double its locations to four and is expecting 1,500 to 2,000 campers as compared with the 420 it had last year.

''The demand was incredible,'' said Brian Colvin, director of publicity for the California camp, in explaining the decision to expand.

In addition to the growth of established camps, newcomers are getting into the act this year:

* Atari Inc., the manufacturer of video games, has announced plans to open camps in four locations.

* Champlain College in Burlington, Vt., will run three two-week sessions.

Smaller day camps are popping up all over. In the Boston area, for example, Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical High School will be the site of a day camp for 90 campers run by a nonprofit group and another nonprofit organization. Intentional Education is leasing facilities at Boston College for 120 campers.

The camps are a way to make money, directors explain, especially for colleges and schools whose buildings and computers would go unused otherwise during the summer months.

For educators, it is a natural extension in a new field of education.

''We feel strongly that educators should be in charge of computer education, '' said Robert Harrington, director of curriculum for Intentional Education. Mr. Harrington is an elementary school principal.

Will all of these expanded and new programs be full?

There is every indication they will be, directors say. The early signs are good.

The number of inquiries are running higher than expected, they said. With the ''camp recruiting'' season just starting, Champlain College has more than 500 inquiries for its 600 places; Computer Camps International is averaging 30 to 35 applications each week and is about to close its first two New England sessions; and National Computer Camps has been getting about 50 inquiries a day since January.

Last year the camps drew young people from every state, Canada, Europe, Kuwait, Israel, South America, and Japan. The response from overseas has grown already this year, say directors.

Day camps expect to attract campers who can't afford the residential programs , which cost up to $400 per week.

''The demand is there,'' said Shelley Richardson, director of the Champlain College camp. ''The people want it.

''One reason the college decided a camp might work, she said, was that parents were calling the school to see if there were programs available for their children.

Summer camps are not what they used to be because parents today want their children to learn more than how to tie knots and sail at camp - so say computer camp directors. Parents recognize that knowing how to run a computer will be a valuable skill.

''Everybody realizes kids are going to have to use computers in all areas, in all parts of the economy,'' said Mr. Harrington.

''In anything he is interested in for a career, he is going to be using a computer,'' said Marjorie Philips of Lexington, Mass., whose son is going to computer camp this summer.

Given a tight national economy, many schools can't afford computer programs, said Mr. Harrington. Other parents are not satisfied the schools are doing enough.

''The computer revolution has caught the school systems with their guards down,'' he said.

Parents are also aware that more and more colleges are requiring computer literacy courses, and they want their children to learn to use the microcomputers they are bringing home.

There may also be a certain snob appeal to telling people one's child is away at computer camp, said several directors who quickly asked not to be named.

What children do learn this summer at computer camp will depend largely on what they already know about computers, said Dr. Arthur Michals, who runs Computer Camps International. Most campers have used a computer, he said.

Last year only 35 to 40 percent of his campers had never used a computer, he said. On the other end of the scale was a 10-year-old who owned two computers and knew five computer languages.

All the camps stress flexibility in selling their programs. Each offers a combination of group and individual instruction and provides free time on the computers. The standard ratio of computers to campers is 2 to 1.

The camps also stress that they include recreational activities as well as computer instruction.

''I'm very worried about the kids getting too attached to the computer,'' said Mr. Harrington.

''I don't think our kids are computer freaks or freaks in any way,'' said Dr. Michals. ''They like swimming. The boys like the girls. The girls like the boys. And we have the expected amount of short-sheeting.''

Campers can learn to do much more than turn off and on a computer at a computer camp, Mr. Harrington said. ''And they won't be sitting there playing Space Invaders,'' he added.

Last year campers worked on programs that ranged from Robot Football to figuring income taxes and currency exchange rates.

Camps can provide a good beginning in computer literacy, Mr. Harrington said. How much a child learns about programming depends on what he or she is also getting at school and at home.

The demand for summer computer camps will continue as long as the use of computers expands in homes and businesses, National Computer Camps director Mike Flaks said.

Several of the groups running summer computer camps are also offering weekend or week-long programs for adults and are considering opening computer centers that would be open all year for training all ages in the basics of computer use.Most of the camps are already planning to expand their summer camp programs next year . . . if this year's boom doesn't bust.

Commented one director: ''We're all waiting to see what happens.''

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