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Summer camps going back to the basics

From cooking and circus classes to a focus on forensics or business, today’s summer camp experience can look pretty 21st century. But some of its traditions never go out of style.

Maine Teen Camp.

At summer camp, what’s old is new again.

After flirting with webcams and other technological intrusions, camps are going back to the basics, recognizing that their strongest selling point is being off the grid.

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“For a while, digital photography and other digital communication was seductive to camp directors, but that has plateaued” at general-interest and even specialty camps, other than the ones that are technology-focused, says Chris Thurber, a consultant and coauthor of The Summer Camp Handbook. “Kids are force-fed technology for the other 10 or 11 months a year. They can take a break from it for a few weeks.”

But just because they are smartphone-free zones doesn’t mean nothing’s new at summer camps. Camps now let parents e-mail their kids, for instance, printing out the messages with bar codes so the campers can respond with handwritten letters scanned and e-mailed home. Administrators are setting up alumni e-mail accounts, too, as they get more savvy about leveraging their alumni to help recruit campers.

The real revolution, though, is in what kids can do at camp. Altogether new camps are cropping up that teach anything from video game design to marine biology and forensics – or that allow families to attend together. And new activities like circus skills and cooking, ripped right from reality TV, are joining the list of camp offerings.

At the coed Maine Teen Camp in Porter, culinary classes are sizzling. “Just look on TV. There are all kinds of cooking programs. Cooking is cool,” says Monique Rafuse, the camp’s co-owner and director. Kids gather in a fully equipped cooking studio for classes on grilling, baking, appetizers, and vegetarian cooking, plus a popular Iron Chef takeoff.

Camp Howe, Goshen

Camp Howe, Goshen

Camp Med-O-Lark in Washington, Maine, has cooking studios, plus studios for film and Web and video game design. Its most recent addition reflects another hot trend in summer camps: a circus class, with a trapeze and camper performances at the end of every session. “It’s new, it’s different, and it’s fun,” says owner and director Scott Weinstein. “You can see that sense of accomplishment and the smile when a child hits a trick.”

Camps have also added health club-style fitness rooms for campers 12 and older and trust games to acquaint new campers with their cabin-mates more sensitively than by telling them on which bunk they should throw their duffel bag. Traditional camps have added father-son, mother-daughter, and family sessions in the early and late summers, for parents and their kids to camp together – and, not coincidentally, make more use of their campuses. “You can go to camp today from 3 to 93,” says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. Family camps are among the fastest-growing categories, along with specialty camps including business camps, computer camps, stuntman camps, space camps, and camps that teach CSI-style forensics.

But mostly camps capitalize on what they always have: their intentional remoteness from the everyday, in natural settings, with broad recreational programs.

“If you read what people were writing about camps 100 years ago, when the idea was gaining steam, it was the same thing,” says Thurber. “This was before smartphones and the Internet, of course, but parents wanted their kids to get away from the cities – to send them into the woods and let them figure things out themselves. With kids more dependent on their parents and technology, that’s more important now than ever.”

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