Camps take fun to the 'extreme'

Summer camp isn't just roasting marshmallows anymore. 'Extreme' camps have children stunt diving, dirt biking, and more. 


Summer camp – the very words have the whiff of marshmallows and campfires, canoeing, and lazy afternoons spent making lanyards and searching the woods for arrowheads.

But as families prepare to send the kids off with the usual sleeping bags and bug spray these days, the camps many are headed to are anything but quaint. Now there are camps with long lists of high-adrenalin extreme sports ranging from scuba diving, dirt biking, and flying on a trapeze to ATV racing, bungee-jumping, stunt diving, and skateboarding. 

Pali Adventures, for instance, in the Lake Arrowhead area of California, offers some 50 activities at 17 specialized camps, including Hollywood stunt training, secret agent techniques, and DJ and rock band skills.

It’s not that camps don’t offer the classics such as learning to tie the right kind of knots on a sailboat. It’s just that kids want to do all the cool stuff they see on YouTube and Facebook, says Ian Brassett, general manager of Pali Adventures. “These are the activities that the children want. They want to be excited, they want to be challenged,” he says via e-mail. “They want to learn how to perform the same skate tricks that they see on the videos and images that make up the world they live in,” he adds.

If summer camps want to compete in the 21st century, they have to keep pace. Approximately 20 percent of camps in the American Camp Association now offer moderate to extreme activities such as caving, notes Peg Smith, ACA chief executive officer. More than 70 percent of ACA camps offer some form of specialized programming, she adds. She is quick to point out that extreme may be a relative term. “The camp community has always been responsive to the emerging needs and interests of children and youth,” she says via e-mail.

Indeed, the “helicopter rappel” offered by Camp Lohikan on Lake Como, Pa., isn’t rappelling from a helicopter, it’s a descent from a tall climbing station deep in the woods.

This trend toward hyperspecialization and extreme activities raises at least a modest red flag for Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston. “We live in a competitive society and many parents and children push to do the specialized things that will give them a competitive edge in their futures,” he says. But this can be at the loss of the well-rounded education that has long been a vital component of civic development. Life is not just about extreme or specialized skills at these early ages, he says. “The more well-rounded our early education,” he says, “the less chance we have to be narrow or prejudicial in our thought.”

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