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From the coast of Maine to the Berkshires, New England’s terrain and wilderness have long made it a perfect place to send kids to summer camp. Yet the gap between children and the natural world — sometimes called “nature deficit disorder” — is widening, even as more and more evidence shows that spending time outdoors is imperative to mental and physical health. And considering that one in five kids is overweight or obese, triple the incidence in the 1970s, getting kids outside and moving has never been more important.
Physical activity can help keep weight off, but research shows that it’s also really good for brain development.
“A lifetime of exercise results in a sometimes astonishing elevation in cognitive performance,” developmental molecular biologist John Medina writes in his bestselling book Brain Rules. In people of all ages, long-term memory, problem-solving, reasoning, and attention get a boost from exercise. Regular physical activity is also necessary for social and emotional learning, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Summer camp, then, is the perfect opportunity to boost kids’ brains. And the recent uptick in interest in activities such as skateboarding, surfing, and rock climbing has helped create and popularize camps designed around “action,” “adventure,” and “extreme” sports. The Summer Olympics lineup will expand to include skateboarding, surfing, and rock climbing in 2020, joining BMX, mountain biking, and kayaking. Snowboarding and freestyle skiing are already on the Winter Olympics roster. In other words, don’t be surprised if your child starts asking for lessons soon.
Though the extreme athletes leaping off cliffs in Mountain Dew commercials may seem nuts, most action sports — like more traditional outdoor adventures such as hiking and negotiating ropes courses — aren’t generally as risky or competitive as they might seem. In fact, data show that action sports often have excellent physical and psychological outcomes, specifically teaching kids about self-reliance, overcoming challenges, and increasing their connection to nature.
As with more traditional camps and other summer programs, parents should always ask about accreditation and safety procedures, and camps should have appropriate equipment and qualified staff.
Action sports camps generally aren’t filled with thrill-seeking, Type A athletes. Most kids participating in lifestyle sports aren’t even competing.
“If your kid wants to be a pro skateboarder, we can do that,” says Beau Lambert, general manager at Rye Airfield,a 50,000-square-foot skate park in Rye, New Hampshire, that offers full- and half-day and overnight camps (plus scooter and BMX options). True, Olympic skateboarding hopeful Nora Vasconcellos and other pros have trained there, but that’s not the level of competition most kids are after. “Less than 10 percent want to be super-competitive,” says Lambert.
Learning and safety are big parts of the program, adds Lambert, who studied to be a teacher but instead pursued a bike-racing career before joining Rye Airfield in the early 2000s. “The top two things we do — aside from having fun and keeping it active — are teach etiquette and safety, inside the building and outside.” At summer Ramp Camps (603-964-2800, ryeairfield.com) for kids 6 to 17, the goal, says Lambert, is “creating the whole kid, not just teaching them how to skateboard.”
Similarly, programs at Northeast Surfing Academy in Hull (617-297-7873, northeastsurfing.com) stealthily focus on interpersonal and science lessons. Surfing etiquette, ocean safety, weather, marine science, respect for others, and environmental stewardship are all in the lineup. The summer program, which offers half-day camps for 7- to 15-year-olds, is set up to make kids better, safer surfers — but, says founder Ronnie Lees, ultimately aims to create “productive members of the surfing community.” Narragansett Surf and Skate in Rhode Island (401-789-7890, narragansettsurfandskate.com), which, like Northeast, is accredited by the National Surf Schools and Instructors Association, also offers summer camps.
“Ninety percent of our camps, day or overnight, focus on outcomes related to social skills, character development, and physical activity,” says Bette Bussel, executive director of the New England chapter of the American Camp Association, which accredits and promotes nearly 400 day and overnight camps throughout the region (781-541-6080, acanewengland.org). Competition comes second, if it figures at all. The emphasis on building kids up both physically and emotionally is pervasive among action and outdoor adventure camps.
Acadia Mountain Guides (207-866-7562, acadiamountainguides.com), a year-round guide service based in Bar Harbor, Maine, offers day and overnight camps for ages 9 to 18. It teaches kids — whether they’re specifically focused on rock climbing or on a customized, multisport road trip — respect for nature, the “leave no trace” philosophy, and stewardship of the land. But even more than that, says operations manager Brad Wilson, “We give them an opportunity to see what they’re capable of.” Whether they’re sea kayaking in Maine, hiking in New Hampshire, or rock climbing in Canada, counselors help kids get out of their comfort zones based on individual abilities.
“It’s all about pushing yourself in a safe environment,” says Lou DeAngelis, program director at Camp Birch Hill in New Durham, New Hampshire (603-859-4525, campbirchhill.com), a traditional sleepaway camp for ages 6 to 16. It offers adventure activities including mountain biking as well as ropes courses, a climbing wall, and a zipline.
“Everyone’s goal can be a little different here,” says DeAngelis, whose camp also offers a 10-day trip for teens that might include whitewater rafting, hiking, sea kayaking, and indoor skydiving, depending on the itinerary. Counselors are as concerned with teaching big life lessons as they are with activity-specific skills. “We try to steer them in the right direction to live a happy, healthy lifestyle,” he says.
In other words, the best camps have instructors who help kids break down their own barriers to success. “Camp teaches kids to build resilience, overcome fear, and increase confidence,” says Bussel. She says she’s not surprised to see more organizations offering activities such as skateboarding, wakeboarding, and stand-up paddling. “Camps always explore new programs,” she says. “They add and delete things all the time based on trends.” Regardless of the activity, though, the main takeaway should be life lessons that help with “safe risk-taking” later in life, she says.
“It’s carpe diem with caution,” says Jem Sollinger, director of Camp Laurel in Readfield, Maine (800-327-3509, camplaurel.com), a coed sleepaway camp for ages 7 to 15 with an array of activities, from arts and crafts to mountain biking. “It takes courage to try something new, but when you see the kids’ smiles light up and their faces glow and their posture change, that’s where it comes full circle,” he says.
“We want kids to feel physically and emotionally supported,” says Kelsey Moore, director of programs at Rock Spot Climbing (617-269-2084, rockspotclimbing.com), which offers daily and weekly indoor and outdoor camps for children age 6 through grade 12 at two locations in the Boston area and two in Rhode Island. “Our motto is ‘all ages, all abilities,’” she says, “and we talk a lot about goals and successes.” Those could be anything from getting your harness and shoes on correctly to achieving a new route. “It’s not just getting to the top of the wall,” says Moore. For kids with anxiety, that makes what could be an intimidating activity less scary. And for those with pie-in-the-sky dreams, instructors help set realistic waypoints along the road to loftier achievements. Says Moore, “The goal is to create a lifelong activity.”
Hub Parkour Training Center in Norton (508-622-1591, hubptc.com) offers camps focused on a similar outcome. “The idea is to get kids to not only enjoy what they’re doing, but also to keep with it,” says owner Dylan Polin. “It’s about the education of movement.” The gym, which opened two years ago, feeding off rising interest in competitions like NBC’s American Ninja Warrior and video games like Assassin’s Creed, offers day camps devoted to obstacle course–style training for kids 6 to 17.
TV and gaming may be the initial draw for some, but Polin says gaining control over their bodies and minds is what gets kids really excited about parkour. “A lot of people think it’s a chaotic, Red Bull-fueled crazy thing, but it’s more like yoga in that it’s mindful. It can give kids so much confidence and power.”
Camaraderie is another important factor. Though Polin describes the majority of his campers as “individual kids” who are “self-driven,” they find themselves naturally working together to tackle obstacles and understand moves. “The challenges you conquer with your friends are so much better than those you conquer against your friends,” says Polin, who notes that kids figure that out quickly.
On the tall ship Oliver Hazard Perry, that kind of groupthink is inherent. “As soon as someone’s onboard, they’re fully part of our crew,” says Bethany Hodge, sales and marketing manager at the nonprofit Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island organization (401-841-0080, ohpri.org), which offers one- and two-week sailing programs for 14- to 18-year-olds. Right away, “trainees” as participants are called, learn how to stand watch overnight, take the helm, and navigate. “It’s all about teamwork and empowerment through responsibility,” Hodge says. “Everyone really is — pun intended — in the same boat.”
Aboard the Oliver Hazard Perry — where teens might get lessons in marine biology, history, or even cooking — the point is learning through sailing, rather than learning to sail. Some camps, on the other hand, concentrate on a particular skill. Take Highland Mountain Bike Park in Northfield, New Hampshire (603-286-7677, highlandmountain.com), a former ski resort that offers lift-operated trail riding and day and overnight camps for kids in grades 3 to 12. “From breakfast till dinner, it’s pretty much all mountain biking,” says Dave Smutok, vice president of development and director of summer camps. Though most of the kids never join competitive teams, they all “have a pretty heavy passion for mountain biking.”
For kids who haven’t found their passion, multi-activity camps can offer a chance to make new discoveries. At Roaring Brook Camp for Boys in Bradford, Vermont (800-832-4295, roaringbrookcamp.com), kids 9 to 14 learn traditional outdoors skills along with adventure sports such as negotiating ropes courses and rock climbing. Activities such as cooking over an open fire and survival training “can lessen their fear and, especially, their fear of failure,” says Thayer Raines, who has run the off-the-grid camp with his wife, Candice, for the past 32 years.
“The children have tremendous input in everything from choosing their activities to how a game should be played,” he says. It teaches them how to speak up and advocate for themselves and to become independent, critical thinkers. “At first they’re surprised, then they’re delighted,” says Raines. “It opens the door for them to take some good risks later in life.” Wavus Camp for Girls in Nobleboro, Maine (207-563-5172, kievewavus.org), offers a similar experience in a girls-only setting.
Above all, kids who learn to love physical activity are more likely to stay fit as they grow up. That’s good news for their bodies, brains, and academic performance, too. For many parents, that’s a bonus to keeping them busy and safe during long summer days. As Polin puts it, “We’re not just trying to make kids great at parkour. We’re trying to make them excellent human beings.”
Don’t tell that to your kids, though. They probably still think skateboarding camp is just about learning new tricks and having fun.
Meaghan O’Neill is a writer based in Newport, Rhode Island. Send comments to email@example.com. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.