Happy Campers

Chances are your childhood summer camp experience went something like this: a few weeks of sleepaway camp in a pine-scented setting, paddling canoes and roasting marshmallows. Or day camp where you captured the flag, crafted with Popsicle sticks and played Marco Polo during swim time. With the exception of sports and the arts, specialized camps were rare—but no longer.

Today’s Baltimore-area campers may choose from a mind-boggling variety of specialty camps. There’s every sport imaginable from water polo at Gilman School to soccer programs just for goalies. And, yes, a camp focused on college athletic recruitment for your lacrosse-loving high schooler is a thing.

Beyond sports, the camp world explodes. Does your child love hip-hop, hand felting or lead guitar? There are camps for that. If Brendan loves the foam swirl on his decaf macchiato at the coffee shop, enroll him in Barista Camp at Garrison Forest School. Or take Josie’s mad skills at running her lemonade stand to the next level with Junior Achievement of Central Maryland’s summer camp for budding entrepreneurs.

Finding the perfect mesh of your child’s interests with a summer program requires a little legwork. Before you Google, take an interest inventory. Ask your child which camps in past summers were fun and which weren’t. Ask friends and co-workers about camps their children have and haven’t enjoyed. As a parent, you will have a different set of criteria, but some research before you pay is critical. It can be a long and expensive slog from Monday evening until Friday afternoon if your son discovers that he truly loathes a camp on the first day.

Consider what your child hasn’t been able to explore during the school year. Summer is the perfect time to expand your child’s interests without adding undue stress to what for many families is a packed-tight school year schedule. Animation camp to the rescue if your Pixar-loving daughter has little time for anything beyond school and swimming from September to June. Themed camps also allow kids to deep-dive into a passion, such as coding, horseback riding or dance. Try to find a program that offers unstructured play and outside time within a discipline-focused camp, though. (It’s called “summer vacation” for a reason).

Or try a different slant on an interest. Your sports-obsessed son will love sports broadcasting camp and improve his public speaking skills. Know thy child and what will work best for them, though. If your camper likes to try a lot of different things, consider a multi-week day camp offering themes on various weeks or days.

With camps, just like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Find out if the specialty camp is taught by experts and teachers or college students. The latter can be great, but how well the topic is presented and how experienced counselors are at working with kids make all the difference in creating a happy experience.

Of course, the tried-and-true—and truly unforgettable—experience of sleepaway camp is just as popular as ever. Enjoying the great outdoors, campfire songs, pranks pulled by bunkmates, an unrequited crush on your counselor and empowering forays into independence make memories and shape lives. It can be just as transforming for the parents. For many families, going to the same sleepaway camp as mom or dad did is another way to connect as parent and child. And my friend Kate swears by the life-changing experience of having weeknight date nights—note the plural—with her husband when her children are at sleepaway camp.

After nearly two decades of choosing camps—I have a son in college and one in fifth grade—I have seen firsthand how a well-chosen specialty camp can spark an interest. When he was 10, my oldest was a lead singer in a School of Rock camp, belting out his original anthem about how annoying moms are. He went to Hogwarts at Harry Potter camp, built Lego robots and launched bottle rockets, all before discovering his perfect summer camp: the Young People’s Studios Summer Camp at the Maryland Institute College of Art. (Full disclosure, he’s a MICA film student now, and summer camp was where he fell in love with the campus and college.)

So far, my younger guy has done camps just for Minecraft, engineering, role-playing video game design and robotics, as well as soccer and multi-themed day camps. This summer, he’s got his eye on a cooking camp and a drone camp. Perhaps I should mix in a Shark Tank-style business camp so he can create a drone delivery takeout business before he hits middle school. After all, there’s no telling how far a great summer experience can take you.

Ten Out-of-the-Ordinary Summer Programs for Your Extraordinary Child

  1. Sail through history in Pride of Baltimore II’s Young Privateers Summer Program. Participants (ages 12 to 16) chart a course for adventure aboard a reproduction War of 1812 Baltimore clipper ship, exploring Baltimore Harbor history from the War of 1812 through the present day. Young sailors help sail and maneuver Pride II, guided by a professional crew of 12 sailor-educators.  Interactive history lessons, sailing skills and on-foot guided tours of Fort McHenry, historic Fells Point and the Inner Harbor are all part of this maritime historic adventure. Pride2.org
  2. It’s show time at iMAGiNATiON 101 Summer Camp by Charm City Players—the perfect camp to let your performer’s acting, singing and dancing (and teamwork and decision-making skills, creativity, confidence, etc.) shine. Boys and girls ages 5-16 participate in a full-scale musical production at Mercy High School—this year’s shows are Disney’s Jr. versions of Beauty and the Beast and Peter Pan—complete with auditions, cast photos, performances, the works! Throughout, campers’ artistic and personal growth is guided by talented performers and arts educators. CharmCityPlayers.com
  3. Towson University Summer Tech Camps give budding programmers coding know-how and STEM-based learning across lots of platforms including Minecraft, 3-D, mobile apps and more. From coding 101 to virtual reality game design and cybersecurity, the array of camps taught by iD Tech on Towson’s University’s campus is impressive. In fact, more students ages 7 to 17 enroll at an iD Tech camp than any other tech camp on the planet. iDTech.com
  4. Young naturalists ages 2-15 blossom at Ladew Gardens Summer Camp in age-appropriate programs that take full advantage of Ladew’s beautiful 250-acre property with formal gardens, butterfly and caterpillar house, forests, meadows, ponds and streams. Taught by naturalists, artists and teachers, programs explore nature and instill a love for the natural world through walks, games, experiments, art and more outdoor fun. LadewGardens.com
  5. Join the national maker movement this summer at Garrison Forest’s Fabulous Fabrications Camp. Campers in fifth-ninth grades spend a week in the school’s state-of-the-art makerspace on open-ended projects inspired by their own interests. Your child designs, tinkers, builds and crafts one-of-a-kind creations in cardboard, wood and acrylic using vector-based software, laser cutters and 3-D printers in a camp that showcases the wonders of his or her imagination. GFS.org/Summer
  6. In 1982, ESF founded its first-day camp. In 1994, the national company added Gilman School’s exceptional campus to its roster of locations. Such longevity won’t mean much to your camper. What will is the huge array of camp choices at ESF at Gilman from Mini Camp (preschool), day camp (ages 4-8), senior camp (ages 9-15), sports, specialty major and tech camps and even a Junior Business Academy. And every one of the dozens or fun programs is taught by a talented team of educators. ESFCamps.com/Gilman
  7. Summer at Friends is tops at the traditions that make day camp memorable: great counselors, daily swimming, lots of exciting programs for kids 4-15, flexible weeks and working parent packages. But it’s the twist on tradition that earns it top marks year after year: exceptional creative arts camp, tech programs, teen babysitter courses and an “all-star” week at the end of the session (August 7-11 this year) featuring the best of the camp’s programs with plenty of exciting surprises. And lunch is provided for all full-day camps. That’s the way to make friends with parents! FSCamp.org
  8. Research shows that kids can lose up to three months of math and reading skills over the summer. Active Minds Learning Camp for kindergarten through fifth grade offers 11 unique weekly themes anchoring a reading, writing and mathematics enrichment program designed and taught by veteran Baltimore County teachers. Children experience learning all summer with personalized lessons from publishing original stories and playing math games on iPads to three field trips a week: a White House tour for leadership week, Ravens Training Camp for teamwork week, National Zoo for animals week and much more. Two campuses: Perry Hall and Timonium. ActiveMindsCamp.com
  9. Give your lax-crazy son or daughter the opportunity of a lifetime to share that love and help transform lives through The South African Lacrosse Project, founded in 2007 by two Towson High School students. Now in its 11th year, the program recruits volunteer lacrosse players ages 16 and up as coaches and mentors for a two-week lacrosse camp for orphans and vulnerable children (up to 150 boys and girls) in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Volunteers also experience safaris, elephant riding, zip lining and hiking. This year’s camp is June 29-July 12; cost is $2,500 plus airfare. SouthAfricanLacrosse.org
  10. A wooded bluff sloping to the lapping waters of the Chesapeake Bay. Sun stretching across a sandy beach. Rustic platform tents dotting the landscape and joyous, bathing-suit clad boys and girls, ages 7-16, enjoying nearly every water sport, outdoor adventure and camp tradition imaginable. Echo Hill Camp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a sleepaway camp located on a 350-acre farm, offers a flexible, free choice activity program. Campers make life-long memories and friends while waterskiing, wakeboarding, sailing, crabbing, ocean kayaking, swamp mucking, orienteering, picking berries, gardening and much more—as well as the usual arts and crafts, drama, music, archery, etc. you’d expect at sleepaway camp. Pack lots of sunscreen! EchoHillCamp.com