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Gone are the days when camp meant only one thing. Modern iterations of camp run the gamut, and while traditional day camps hold wide appeal, some kids have interests that run deep early—passions that they now can explore in depth during specialty summer camps tailored just to them. So whether your child attends one session of sleepaway camp followed by another of fashion design camp (yes, there’s a camp for that!) or opts for hanging with fellow theater fans for a few weeks before heading off to hike and capture the flag, you’ll find you have options galore.
We’ve chosen to spotlight four very different, highly specialized camps here (and you can always search for more in our directory). Take heed: One thing all these camps have in common, above and beyond immersing campers in a unique experience, is instilling good values.
Thirteen-year-old Jacob* is a “Lego kid,” says his mom, Stephanie Taylor of Manhattan. “He likes to manipulate and make things. I don’t have a kid who wants to play baseball for four hours. He might make Origami for four hours though.”
Unlike previous summers when Jacob attended more traditional sleepaway and day camps, he instead spent last summer at Beam Camp in Strafford, NH, a fine and manual arts, technology, and collaboration sleepaway camp that focuses on allowing kids to rely on innovative thinking and the creative process—essentially, to make really cool stuff.
“He really liked woodshop. He made this very elaborate kind of saw thing,” Taylor says. “Everything that the kids do is from original sources. There is not a kit to be seen anywhere, which made me very, very happy. It’s not color-by-numbers. Everything is completely self-generated.”
At Beam Camp, for kids ages 7-17, all campers regardless of age are put into teams called “waves,” and every morning all teams work on one main project together until the end of the 24-day camp session. In the afternoon, kids pick two electives a week, including furniture making, bookbinding, pottery, welding—even discovering distances and optics or blasting myths.
“Kids have sort of grown up in a point-and-click world where they make simple decisions that have been prepared for them. They were not getting the opportunity to work with their hands. We wanted to make a camp where they get to see behind those perfect interfaces. Perfection comes at the price of failure,” says Brian Cohen, whose childhood dream of opening a camp came true in 2005 when he and Danny Kahn, now co-director, brought Beam to life; Beam has an outpost in Brooklyn during the winter.
To come up with ideas for the main project, Beam Camp holds two competitions a year, attracting designs from architects, engineers, and artists from all over the world. During the first session last summer, all the campers, staff, and counselors collaborated to create “Creature Quake,” large creatures in nature designed by two landscape architects from Washington, D.C. The designs do not come with instructions on how to build them—all the campers and mentors work together to determine how to best build the structures.
“We don’t have all the answers. We’re learning alongside the kids,” Cohen says of the main project. Staff tries to instill in campers the idea that the only way to succeed “is to jump in and make a bunch of mistakes. We’ve all made a bunch of mistakes that add up to a spectacular piece.”
“You start seeing common traits in some of the kids who attend [Beam Camp],” Cohen says. “If a kid is in his room making stuff or has a notebook for inventions and has plans for things—is constantly talking about their ideas or wants to invent or make something—he’s like many others here: the plotters, the schemers.”
Though Beam’s main focus is on arts and technology, campers participate once a day in swimming in the lake, boating, or playing games such as capture-the-flag and basketball—so your kids do in fact get a taste of that more traditional camp experience.
Like Beam Camp, French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts in the Catskills offers less conventional camp activities, including courses in magic, circus acts, trapeze, computer game design, theater, and dance. Initially a music camp founded in the ’70s, it focuses on catering programs to each individual child (ages 7-17).
“We’re known for our performing arts program, but our real goal is to address the individual needs of children, and every kid is different,” says Beth Schaefer, the camp’s staff director, whose father, Ron Schafer, founded the camp. “In any given period during the day, we’re offering 80 different class choices. Kids often have never done these activities before. Kids [who start] at French Woods don’t need any particular skill.”
At French Woods, the majority of kids “march to their own drum a little bit,” Schafer says. “We do really well with kids who maybe don’t focus as well as home. Here, they are able to focus on activities of their own choosing. We have kids at camp who are savant musicians who love basketball, and we’re able to provide programming for that kid.”
Along with programming in the performing and fine arts, French Woods also sets aside time for campers to play sports and has a ropes course similar to those found in more traditional camps.
“The beauty of summer is that you can let children explore different avenues, see what they’re passionate about,” says Karen Thurm Safran, vice president of marketing and development at iD Tech Camps, a family-owned and operated summer camp delivering technology instruction to children ages 7-17 and teens ages 13-18 at prestigious universities like Columbia University and MIT.
With six different campuses to choose from in New York, iD Tech offers more than 40 courses in subjects such as video games, filmmaking, iPhone app creation, robotics, and photography. The equipment and software campers use in these courses are all professional-level, industry-standard products. Bonus: Kids are able to get an unofficial tour of whichever campus they attend and explore whether it’s the type of environment or school they see themselves attending in the future.
“[iD Tech] is really different from a traditional camp,” Safran says. “We take students’ passions and interests and we show them how they can turn those into something more, and into a potential career. It is project-based learning, the most effective way to learn.”
Having grown from four locations when iD Tech was first founded in 1999 to more than 60 locations in 23 states, iD Tech Camp is more than a technology camp. With 23,000 campers, iD Tech attracts kids who also enjoy more artsy activities including filmmaking and photography.
With youth interest in gadgets on the rise, there is no cookie-cutter camper who attends iD Tech. “We’re way more than a technology camp. It’s hands-on, creative, artistic, letting kids articulate their creativity through different means,” Safran says. “The trick is to really see what brings your child alive. Ask, ‘What activity are they doing where their eyes get all excited?’ If a child loves video gaming, then here’s a wonderful opportunity that will let him take a course in how to make a video game. It’s not just a hobby—you can do much more with it.”
These “unconventional” camps are simply so because of the different activities and courses they offer compared to the more traditional camps; the majority of the goals remain one and the same. “There is a set of social skills that they will learn here and at other camps around negotiating conflict, navigating social complexity, and experimenting with identity,” Cohen says.
Though the activities and workshops may differ, Camp Fashion Design in New York City, founded by former model Heather Cole (who also runs a modeling camp), incorporates similar core values into its program. This four-day intensive day camp that provides campers with a thorough understanding of the fashion industry through hands-on activities, including sketching, shopping for fabrics, designing a clothing line, and networking with professionals in the industry, does not allot time for traditional recreational activities or sports, but what campers walk away with are similar to the values instilled at many other camps.
“It’s important to teach teamwork, working together, and respecting each other’s opinions. These are core values we put in the program,” says Cole, also a mother of a teenage boy. “You can be a great designer, but if you don’t have social skills and you aren’t able to present yourself, [it won’t work]. We also talk about personal fashion. It’s important to be able to be yourself and not worry about what others think.”
Nurturing kids in an accepting environment was an important aspect that impressed Taylor about Beam Camp. “[Jacob’s] counselor has a cool ethical core of letting kids be who they are and making it fine for who they are,” Taylor says. “Jacob is slow to transition. They took one look at him and said, ‘Okay, that’s who you are.’ There is a respect for the integrity of the kid.”
*Names of this family have been changed by request.
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