READING — This summer, a group of 7- to 16-year-olds delivered from grave peril this quiet town just north of Boston, armed only with toy weapons and their own wherewithal. In a single week, they contained a zombie threat that emerged on the campus of Austin Preparatory School, and also managed to identify and defend a helpless strain of human mutants that materialized simultaneously.
Yes, they were just pretending. But this was no backyard game. At Nerf Zombie Camp and the other programs organized by Guard Up, a company that runs summer camps and year-round activities, play is serious business, although it remains a laughing matter.
Many kids spend summer camp days at the pool or on the soccer field, but only a few get to battle zombies. By the end of the summer, 100 children will have participated in the Nerf Zombie Camp sessions, one held in Reading and the other in Burlington. Three times as many will have attended the Wizards and Warriors camp, either as day campers or overnighters. The half who stay over live in classrooms converted to dorms at Austin Prep.
Meghan Gardner, a parent and martial arts instructor, founded Guard Up in 1999 as a martial arts studio, but it quickly evolved into something different.
“The actual inspiration for where Guard Up is today came from my kids,” Gardner said. “I would make up a story with them as the heroine, I would put them into a situation, and I would ask them what they wanted to do.”
The zombie camp, along with Wizards and Warriors and several Guard Up after-school programs, operates according to that principle. Inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, live action role-playing (also known as LARPing), and popular computer games, the camp organizes complex games that prompt campers to build their own multilayered narratives that last the length of the sessions, five to 11 days. The narratives are guided by counselors and junior counselors called “monster campers,” but they also unfold organically, according to what the kids want to do.
“Pretend is how kids work out real life situations,” Gardner said. “It’s a very open and creative environment where we allow the kids to do whatever they want, within reason.”
In the summer’s first Zombie session, campers had plenty of opportunity to use their toy weapons against staggering zombies — monster campers, staff, and parent volunteers dressed up in full makeup. But they also had to determine the zombie’s genetic makeup — which they did using real chemistry techniques — and to use that knowledge to make moral decisions about how the zombies and their variants deserved to be treated.
“It’s a golden opportunity to learn real academic and social skills in a creative, fun, live environment that can essentially mimic a computer game,” Gardner said. “All the programs in our camp are like computer games without the computer.”
All sessions end with a climactic final battle, with campers streaming across outdoor fields, engaged in furious combat maneuvers. The zombie battles are particularly ferocious.
During a recent visit to Wizards and Warriors, which looks closer to “The Lord of the Rings” than “The Walking Dead,” and which favors foam swords over projectiles, the unfolding action was a little hard to understand. The proceedings had a one-room-schoolhouse quality: Campers of all ages mingled easily, swords in hands, interacting with a range of characters played by staff members.
It seemed that Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty were both present, but that their identities had been reversed. Mr. Hyde stalked by, no sign of his counterpart, and an endless stream of wizards, healers, and various fantasy-costumed campers milled about.
The story had already been unfolding for days. Hard to break in, perhaps, but all of the 80 or so campers seemed to follow the internal logic effortlessly, and to accept without question the eccentric melding of fantasy tropes with mythological and literary figures.
“A lot of the parents don’t realize at first how much the kids are learning,” said Chris Rossi, a 21-year-old Guard Up staffer who attended the camp when he was in middle and high school. “They learn about science, history, and literature, but they also pick up a lot of great social skills. We try to teach them how to be a hero, which translates into being a good person out in the real world.”
The programs tend to attract a demographic that is not preoccupied with athletics and who might not be interested in a a more typical camp experience, according to several campers.
“Guard Up really helped me come out of my shell,” Rossi said. “I’ve seen so many campers and students who are very quiet or shy or reserved, but I’ve seen so many students who really explode into their character, and once the game’s over they’re still at that level where they are bouncing around, energized, and they’re still interacting with their friends.”
Nate Streeger, 16, a monster camper who attended both zombie and wizards and warriors sessions, echoed the sentiment.
“When I came here, at first I was kind of a quiet kid,” he said. “Now I enjoy being a leader, and I enjoy being more of a leader in normal school as well. Probably one of the only reasons I have any leadership skills is directly related to this camp.”
Carla Binswanger, whose son Colin has attended the camp for several years, said that she was impressed when she first learned from Colin how the camp operated.
“My husband and I — we’re both writers, we’re both word snobs,” she said. “We were both floored by the camp directors and their grasp of teaching a story that excites kids this age.”
Colin, 13, agreed. “You hang out with your friends, fighting, exploring, solving puzzles, putting your brain to work and fighting monsters.”
A summer camp that mixes characters and mythical creatures haphazardly can appear disjointed to an outsider. But for the children who participate, nothing could be further from the truth.
“It’s a place where your imagination is your most valued asset,” Binswanger said. “Your willingness to dive into a plotline is at a premium, and your imagination, not your physical fitness level, defines you.”