Kids are running and jumping. So are parents: Camp is back.

Why We Wrote This

Summer camp allows young people to form friendships and connect with nature – and gives parents an often needed break. The coronavirus has complicated the camp experience, but has not done away with it. How is it being adapted? 

Rosy Garibay/City Kids Wilderness Project
City Kids Wilderness Project canceled its in-person summer camps in Jackson, Wyoming, creating instead a virtual camp for the 130 children it would have hosted from Washington, D.C. Here, parents of seventh grade participants learn about last year's program and the plans for 2020.

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When City Kids Wilderness Project canceled its in-person summer camps in Jackson, Wyoming, this year, it created instead a virtual camp for the 130 children it would have hosted from Washington, D.C.

“This is the first summer in our 24-year history that we can’t do camp in Wyoming. We didn’t want kids to miss out or lose their connection with us,” says Monique Dailey, program director for City Kids, which is continuing to offer yoga, environmental films, and journaling prompts to campers. 

In the face of public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the summer camp experience is changing. With many overnight camps closed, organizations of daytime-only offerings are experimenting with alternative formats including backyard or online camps – some of which could continue throughout the year. 

Koa Sports opened camps with reduced capacity, as well as started its first-ever social distance camps. Parents can pay for Koa to send two counselors to a house to run camp for a group of five to eight children. Recent host Samantha Friedman calls it “one of the greatest ideas ever.” 

“I think they liked being with their friends again,” says the Maryland mother of two boys. “We liked that they were ... tired again and not on electronics.”

In June, Samantha Friedman, mother of boys ages 6 and 11, hosted one of the first “social distance” camps staffed by Koa Sports at her house. Her sons and a small group of their friends played baseball, basketball, and street hockey, and battled with water balloons and squirt guns. 

Ms. Friedman says the camp was “one of the greatest ideas ever,” as she could start her interior design work again, and her children were able to socialize and play sports again after not playing for four months. 

“I think they liked being with their friends again,” says the Gaithersburg, Maryland, parent. “We liked that they were sweaty and running around and tired again and not on electronics.”

In the face of public health restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic, the summer camp experience is changing. Groups are experimenting with alternative formats including backyard camps, “camp in a box” (where families are sent supplies), and online camps – some of which could continue throughout the year. Parents are grateful for the break provided by supervised sports and nature journaling, while organizations – mostly those involved in non-overnight offerings – manage engaging activities and the health and legal rules that come with new approaches.

“We had two options: innovate and pivot, or shut down,” says Tony Korson, founder and CEO of Koa Sports, based in Bethesda, Maryland. “The communities and kids need us. The parents need child care, and the kids need activities with their buddies. We decided that’s more important, and we’re going to come up with these hours upon hours of procedures and policies to make this work.” 

Courtesy of Koa Sports League
Koa Sports in Rockville, Maryland, uses cones and pool noodles to keep campers socially distanced for games such as kickball, tag, tennis, and baseball.

This summer, about 19.5 million of the 26 million children who normally attend a day or overnight summer camp in the United States will not have camp experiences, says Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA). A majority of overnight camps are closed this year, with a few states including Oregon, New York, and Connecticut banning them. Some overnight camps have closed recently due to coronavirus outbreaks, and officials are monitoring outbreaks at day camps as well. 

Mr. Rosenberg praises the pivot some groups have made to online offerings, which he says “are a wonderful way for kids to socially and emotionally connect,” after sheltering in their homes without peer-to-peer connection for weeks. Online camps may continue throughout the year, he says. 

City Kids Wilderness Project canceled its in-person summer camps in Jackson, Wyoming, this year, creating instead a virtual camp for the 130 children it would have hosted from Washington, D.C.

“This is the first summer in our 24-year history that we can’t do camp in Wyoming. We didn’t want kids to miss out or lose their connection with us,” says Monique Dailey, program director for City Kids, which is continuing to offer yoga, environmental films, and journaling prompts to campers. 

But some groups, like Koa, are forging ahead with in-person offerings. Koa opened camps with reduced capacity, and also started its first-ever social distance camps. Parents can pay for Koa to send two counselors to a host family’s house to run camp for a small group of five to eight children. In the first week of operation in June, the program ran at 10 houses, then jumped to 25 houses the next week, with enrollment continuing to be strong in July. The social distance camp is insured, and staff wear masks and sanitize equipment. 

Ms. Friedman, the Maryland mother who hosted one of the Koa programs, says she has a large yard that’s conducive to a backyard camp. For families without that resource, organizations have tried other tactics.

Community Kids, a Christian nonprofit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, ran three weeks of a backyard summer camp locally in June. It brought in activities, a meal, an hour of Bible study, fire pits, and tents for backyard campouts. Midway through the program, the governor lifted closures on parks, and Community Kids moved many activities to local parks after finding the small, urban backyards of their participants were getting too crowded. 

Courtesy of Community Kids
Aubrey Frazier and Laniya Morris participate in a backyard summer camp organized by Community Kids, a Christian nonprofit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 2020.

For Neal Waldman, who runs a tour agency for students and who previously owned a summer camp in Maine, pivoting to an at-home camp made sense as demand fell for student tours. In June he launched SummerCamp2u, serving families in New England, and he’s partnering with Next Level  2 U camp in New York state and Steam Discovery Academy in Charlottesville, Virginia, to offer at-home backyard camps. 

“We’re trying to emulate all that magic from camp. There’s lots of values and morals from camp that we’re trying to capture,” says Mr. Waldman. 

Mr. Waldman and Mr. Korson say health and safety are the top priority for their at-home summer camps, noting that staff members are tested for COVID-19, are given temperature checks, and wear masks. All participants stay outside the host family’s house, except for a designated bathroom. Mask-wearing is left to parental discretion.

Abbe Klein of Needham, Massachusetts, hosted a backyard camp through SummerCamp2u for her 8-year-old twin daughters and two of their friends. Health and safety “was a big concern when we were deciding whether to do this,” she says. “It felt like they handled things in a way that made us feel comfortable.” 

Other backyard camps reportedly include teenagers setting up informal camps to watch neighborhood children. Mr. Rosenberg of the ACA warns parents to consider the risks of backyard camps, since without proper protocols, they could effectively be running unlicensed day care centers.

“If Mom and Dad have to work and they’re going to hire someone to look after kids, I think of that as babysitting. That’s not camp,” he says. “Camp is an immersive, multiday experience that is an organized camp that is professionally run” and follows extensive protocols, such as the 260 standards that ACA-accredited camps meet. 

Angelica Holmes was gearing up for her second summer of directing Camp Founder Girls, a historically Black summer camp for girls, when the coronavirus forced a change in plans. Camp Founder Girls is owned by Black Outside Inc, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, which aims to expand exposure and relevancy of the outdoors to children of color. 

At first Ms. Holmes thought they would need to cancel camp. But with protests erupting for social justice, and young people isolated for so long, running a program became a priority. So Camp Founder Girls ran for one week in June, and campers alternated between three days of in-person camp in small groups of 10, and two days of virtual camp. While together, the girls participated in socially distanced yoga and hikes, and on virtual days painted self-portraits and had game nights. 

“Our sense of community is so strong and so needed, not just for our girls, but for our counselors, even for me. It was so important to try and figure something out even if it required a lot,” says Ms. Holmes. “It’s really life-giving to be able to be around our girls. ... It makes it so worth it because the girls are just so excited.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include references to recent coronavirus outbreaks and closures at some camps. As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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