By Debbie Gardner
GREATER SPRINGFIELD – A visit to a summer camp is more than just a way to keep your children occupied during the summer months. It's an opportunity for kids to learn and grow in ways that parents, and even schools, can't always provide.
When it comes to such summer camp experiences, Western Massachusetts offers children from preschool age through mid-teens a wealth of opportunities from traditional day camps at Pine Knoll in East Longmeadow and Stony Brook Acres in Wilbraham to overnight sports camps at Springfield College to intensive learning experiences at Westfield State University's College for Kids and the Springfield Museums' summer program at its Museum School.
According to Lucy Norville, director of public information, American Camp Association New England, "Camp is a great place to be introduced to something you didn't know you'd love."
She noted that, in addition to exposing attendees to myriad experiences, a counselor who is passionate about a certain activity or skill can often get a child to try something that his or her parents haven't been able to. Swimming, hiking and kayaking are a few of the traditional activities Norville said kids seem to be more willing to try at camp.
Those are not the only kinds of experiences kids can sample in a camp setting, however. Rosann Scalise, director of programming for the YMCA of Westfield, said providing campers with new learning opportunities, while also offering traditional camp experiences such as nature hiking and swimming, is a big part of this summer's programs for the Y's Camp Shepard in Westfield.
"We have some new camps this year that we are trying out," Scalise said, noting that the Y is introducing a video production camp geared for teens as part of the Camp Shepard day camp experience this year. The goal of the program will be to put together a "day in the life of Camp Shepard" video newsmagazine by the end of the program.
Geared toward boys and girls 12 to 15 years old, Scalise said the video camp was designed for "kids who had been going to camp for some time and [were] looking for something different." She hoped it might also "attract students who have an interest in the video industry."
She said the Y would be repeating its popular mini-musical camp – where campers conceive, write and put on a musical production, and adding a pop rock music camp this summer.
"These camps are offered 9 a.m. to noon, with that [first part] the specialty and then [campers] go and participate for the rest of the day with regular Camp Shepard activities," she said. "There's just an appeal for kids who want to do something beyond the traditional day camp."
Norville noted 21st century camp experiences are also a great place for kids to learn skills they will need in high school, college – and the real world – such as working in groups and collaborating with individuals who are different from themselves and their friends.
In summer camps, she noted, kids are faced with "cooperating and collaborating with other kids, often kids who don't go to [their] school [and] come from different backgrounds. Those opportunities to live and work and play with other people are extremely valuable."
Kathy Smith, director of conferences and special events at Springfield College, said the college's overnight Athletic Training Student Workshop, an intensive camp that targets high school sophomores and juniors with an interest in the allied health sciences as a potential career, offers attendees that kind of ability to work with a diverse group of individuals.
"The students really get a taste of what it would be like to work on injuries, [attend] practice sessions, demonstrations and [work] in the classroom," Smith said, adding that the career exploration workshop, as well as the college's soccer and gymnastics camps, draw attendees from across the country.
These types of camps echo an increased interest in specialty experiences, which Norville said has become a growing trend in the camp industry.
"Specialization is one of the things that makes camps different from one another," she said, adding that parents who are considering sending their child to a camp that specializes in a particular sports skill or activity should do a thorough exploration of the camp's program before signing their child up.
She said evaluating a camp is "not as simple as 'do they offer it,' but [also] 'how and who is teaching it.'"
Camp websites, which often detail the credentials of instructors and use video to demonstrate their programs, are a great way for parents to check out a potential camp and its appropriateness for their child's age and interests, Norville added.
This is especially true when considering special interest sports camps, drama camps and intensive learning programs such as those offered by the Museum School at the Springfield Museums.
According to Jeanne Fontaine, director of the Museum School, summer experiences at the museums immerse campers from ages 5 through 15 years "in the arts, history and sciences while in the company of historical artifacts, scientific objects and art works from the great masters."
She said the slate of camps offered at the Museum School changes annually in order to integrate the summer's key exhibits into the learning experiences "in the classroom and the studio."
For example, this summer there will be camp programs incorporating the museum's Amazing Butterflies and Worn to be Wild exhibits in addition to the popular arts and science exploration camps, and intensives concentrating on robots and impressionists, she said.