The traditional idea of summer camp conjures images of wooded retreats with lakes and cabins or fields and gyms for “ball and stick” sports like soccer, basketball, and lacrosse.

But those notions are changing, as innovative programs redefine the genre. What both traditional and more unconventional programs have in common are underlying goals of enrichment and personal growth.

“Our camps specialize in getting kids ‘unplugged’ from the computer and participating in a live adventure where they act out the role of a hero,” said Bedford resident Meghan Gardner, founder of Guard Up!, which offers fencing camps in Burlington and Waltham. “Our mission is to inspire our campers to become life-long learners who want to make a difference in the world.”


The options seem endless. In addition to swordplay for fencing aficionados, there are acting and theater camps for budding thespians, art programs to emulate Winslow Homer or Georgia O’Keeffe, music camps to unleash your inner Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen, computer and gaming camps for keyboard jockeys, science camps to inspire a future Nobel Prize winner, or dance programs to give youngsters wings.

Guard Up!’s co-ed Wizards & Warriors Camp combines adventure with science, technology, engineering and math — “essentially a live computer game,” says Gardner, but without the computers.

“Kids play the role of a hero, dressed in costumes, and fight monsters with foam swords and physics,” she said. “Our counselors are teachers or college students learning to become educators. Our heroes learn physics, biology, chemistry, and other academics while solving mysteries from stories based in real world mythology, history, and literature.”

Olympia Fencing Center in Cambridge, which hosts camps at Brandies University in Waltham, allows campers to take up swords with a purpose, but within reason.

“It teaches camaraderie, sportsmanship, discipline,” said Iulia Hondor, a native of Romania who manages Olympia with her husband, Daniel.


“They love the white fencing gear and the real weapons, the clanging of the blades and the scoring lights going off, and the adrenaline rush,” Hondor said. “We teach them how to become better people and overcome today’s failures only to work harder and prepare for tomorrow’s successes. We see tears, but more often, we see big smiles.”

For movement of a different kind, the Melrose-based O’Shea Chaplin Academy of Irish Dance hosts summer camps in Winchester, Norwood, Lawrence, and Watertown. Director Rita O’Shea began teaching in Galway, Ireland, before moving to Boston in the 1960s. Her daughter, Lisa Chaplin McAllister, said “dancers learn stretches, drills, solo dances as well as team dances, and Rita teaches them a little bit of Gaelic.”

Music and academic camps and programs have been popular for decades, and continue to evolve and thrive. Inga Magid founded Keys for Kids in St. Louis after she emigrated from Ukraine in 1989 and brought the group-based music program to Lexington almost two decades ago.

“This program blends the best of Russian, European, Japanese, and American music educational traditions,” said Magid. “Our camp is focused on developing and expanding the artistic and creative side of kids through a well-balanced combination of educational material, fun activities, and games.”

The South Shore Arts Center in Cohasset offers several programs that are an extension of the center’s year-round classes under the tutelage of “experienced teachers who are also practicing, exhibiting artists,” said education coordinator Anthony Pilla.


At the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum in Lincoln, “the hive” is tailored “for curious kids who want to think, discover, and make big things together,” said program director Sarah Ann Brockway.

“Campers work inside studios, outside in the park, and visit the museum,” said Brockway. “They find inspiration in art, nature, and themselves. They’re not sitting at desks to master techniques. Each camper’s personal interests and unique abilities are welcomed. They experiment and get messy.”

Kristy Pace of Los Angeles travels east each summer to run the Pocket Full of Tales program at The Center for Arts in Natick.

“Each workshop is a space to explore, experiment, and engage in the performing arts, through performing stories inspired by popular classics,” said Pace. “Each class is adapted to the individuals in the class, to meet their personal developmental and artistic capabilities.”

Similarly, Dori Robinson, who oversees the Kids Summer Drama Workshops at the Stoneham Theatre, said: “We believe that good theater makes good people, which means that we cultivate an environment that cares about the process just as much as the product. We’re as dedicated to rigorous theater training as we are about building empathy, confidence, and collaboration.”

Sometimes, even adults get involved. The South Shore Arts Center, said Pilla, has “28 classes for adults, including professional workshops and study with outstanding visiting artists.”

At deCordova, “the grown-ups have wanted in on the hive creation since year one,” said Brockway. “Last year, we piloted an adult hive three-hour workshop where camper parents design and construct a component which complements the campers’ installation. This year we’ll have two adult hives.”


Guard Up! camps culminate with a “Big Battle” every two weeks, Gardner said.

“This is also our ‘Parents Day,’ when all of the parents show up and report to make-up to get made into zombies,” she said. “This is a huge event where over 100 heroes battle the staff and parents in an effort to save humanity.”

Brion O’Connor can be reached at brionoc@verizon.net.