Should Your Child Go to Specialty Camp?

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A camper grins before boarding the vessel at Kids Set Sail, the specialty sailing camp for kids aged 7-15. Courtesy: DC Sail.

If you attended camp as a kid, you might have memories of canoeing, roasting marshmallows over open fires, archery lessons, crafting and overnights in rustic cabins. Those general camp offerings of mixed activities still exist, but they are becoming eclipsed in popularity by week-long sessions of robot building, modeling or cooking classes as more and more children are spending their summers in specialty camps.

What is a specialty camp?
Lauren Kasnett is co-founder of Summer 365, a complimentary consultant service that helps parents navigate camp choices for their child. She says a specialty camp focuses on one topic, often with a unique approach, location or subject. In the DC area, campers can spend their summers pursuing their interest in almost anything from sewing to STEM, from computers to cooking and from sailing to modeling.

Specialty sessions offer campers the chance to take a deeper dive into their favorite topics. For instance, a general camp experience might include horseback riding. At Camp Horizons equestrian camp for kids aged 8-16, all activities, including crafts and games, are centered on horses. Campers spend up to three hours a day riding, and other activities are tailored to help them learn about horses, including stable management, care and grooming and preparation for horse shows.

Is My Child Ready for a Specialty?
Kasnett says that because specialty camps are so centered on one topic, often working progressively through the week to a final product or a shared goal, you need to ensure your child is committed to the camp topic. “You really have to have a sustained interest to focus in a specialty camp,” she said.

“If your kid is wanting to bounce around, they might be better suited to a more general camp,” she said.

She said that specialty camps often skew older than general camps. “Specialty camps usually gear a bit older, middle school and beyond. But there are elementary school kids with a particular passion where it can be appropriate. Everyone knows their own kid best.”

More important than the age consideration, she said, is the ability of the program to accommodate your child’s needs. “A lot of camps do serve a range of levels, whether you are a novice or intermediate,” she said. “Understand how campers will be grouped, whether according to skill level or age group, and if that will work for your camper.” For instance, if a computer programming camp groups according to age rather than skill, an eight-year-old who is already independently programming could be bored and unchallenged for the week.

At the same time, Kasnett said that a lack of experience shouldn’t necessarily stop a camper from registering. “I don’t think being a novice is a barrier to entry at all,” she said. “That’s a benefit of going to a specialty camp: to take a deeper dive and focus on it in a more meaningful way.”

Cooking camp at Capitol Hill Day School (CHDS). Young students learn about ingredients, measurement and visit restaurants as part of the specialty camp, one of 35 different programs offered by the school in summer.

Learn Skills
DC Sail Director of Business Operations Traci Mead agrees. She oversees the nonprofit’s Kids Set Sail camp, offered to children ages 7-15. She said that children don’t need to have any previous sailing experience and, although it is advisable, they are not required to know how to swim.

At Kids Set Sail, which operates out of the Piers at Diamond Teague Park (99 Potomac Ave. SE), campers learn basic sailing skills including knots, sailing and person-overboard drills, and intermediate students learn race techniques and navigational skills. Instructors use a combination of games and drills to teach sailing concepts.

In the context of the District, she said, comfort on the water is a life skill. “For children that live near water, such as those in Washington, DC, with two rivers running through their backyards, so to speak, building an awareness of water and boating safety is very beneficial,” said Mead.

Director of Auxiliary Programs at Capitol Hill Day School (CHDS, 210 South Carolina Ave. SE) Njonjo Smith said specialty camps are becoming more and more popular in part because of the educational benefits. “A lot more camps are starting to do this because it gives kids more options to learn skills,” he said. “It’s really interesting for kids to get learning experience. It’s gets them more engaged in the learning process.”

CHDS offers more than 30 different specialty camps geared towards the younger set, with programs for kids aged 4 to 14. The summer program offers camps with themes such as cooking, science, fashion design, baseball, computer programming and game design and development as well as animation and film camp design.

Smith said that campers are not bound to the classroom. Each specialty camp takes field trips to places related to that topic. Campers in cooking camp traveled to a restaurant where the chef took the kids back to the kitchen to see what happens behind the scenes.

He agrees that parents need to be certain they are choosing what their children are interested in, not just what they think they might enjoy. “Really talk to your child. Know their interests,” said Smith. “Help them understand what is really involved in the activities, because a parent might think their child will like it but when their child starts doing it, they’re not so sure.”

Smith said one way to capitalize on the deep dive of specialty camp and provide variety is to switch camps. “Kids can mix weekly camps,” he said. “You don’t have to commit to all seven weeks.”

Model For A Week?
There are other camps that take the deep dive and offer a unique experience. Former model and Model Source founder and scout Heather Cole established Modelling Camp (modellingcamp.com) to help girls build confidence and self-esteem.

Although some campers have gone on to be signed and have careers as models, Cole acknowledges that modeling is a tough industry. “Not everybody can be a model for a living,” she said. “But why can’t they be a model for a week?”

Campers are girls between 11 and 17, both girls who want to become models and those sent by parents who think they need a boost to self-esteem. Founded in Virginia, the camp has expanded nationally but are still intimate in size; the DC camp sessions in Fairfax max out at 20 girls.

Sessions cover broad topics linked to modeling, including hair, make-up and photo sessions but also posture, personal presentation and interview skills. “These are things they need in life in general, as well as in modelling,” said Cole.

Factors to Consider
When choosing a camp, there are many factors to consider together with your child’s individual interests. Safety, camp philosophy, staff and training, camp location and cost are all important factors.

Camps in the District and area range from day camps at $150 per week to thousands of dollars per session for overnight specialty camps. Only you can determine what is appropriate to meet your needs, but, in addition to the cost of tuition, be aware of the potential for additional costs for things like transportation and aftercare costs, t-shirts, photographs, supplies, and additional medical insurance where required.

Together with your child, you will determine if they are ready for overnight camps, which generally take campers beginning at around seven years of age, or if a day camp is better suited to your needs.

As you narrow in on potential camp choices, it is advisable to check if they are ACA accredited. ACA’s accreditation process is an independent safety audit evaluating up to 300 standards of camp management and programming. It is also a good idea to reach out to the camp staff, especially the Camp Director.

“Understand what your goals are for the camp, location, your budget, the areas of interest in camp programing,” said Kasnett. “But also —and maybe more importantly— consider your child’s personality and interests as well as the way the camp compliments your family values.”

Kasnett says campers do overnight as early as eight years old; grades three and four are a common entry point. Past sleepovers can be a clue that they’re ready for overnight camp, but are not the only signposts. “Showing independence in afterschool programs, or a budding interest in independence are both clues,” she said. “Overnight camp is one of the most important parts of the summer experience; it’s a total break and time away from technology.”

Whatever you choose for your child’s summer camp experience, the different experience and new friendships will be an education that will last a lifetime. “Camp is an opportunity to do things kids are not doing in school year,” said Kasnett. “Overnight and summer camps in general are one of the greatest classrooms without walls.”

Learn more about Summer365 by visiting their website at summer365.com