Specialty vs. Traditional: Choosing the right camp


By Darcy Lewis

Campers head off on a bike ride at a traditional cabin-in-the-woods summer camp.

When the snow is flying and the mercury dropping, it's tough to think about summer. But if you have kids who want to go to camp, this is the time to think about where they'll be spending their summer.

Despite a sagging economy and terrorist threats, summer camp is no endangered species. The benefits to children and parents are substantial as they learn to separate and try their wings a bit.

Enrollment season already is in full swing at some camps. So wrap up in a blanket, sip a little hot chocolate and start thinking about how your child might like to spend a portion of his summer and how much fun your family budget can bear. Would he like a week at a sleep-in-a-cabin, hike-in-the-woods camp just like the one you attended? Or would your money be better spent on a camp that would build on her love of painting, violin-playing or horseback riding?

Whether a camp has a specialty focus or offers traditional camp activities, it's most likely going to have the same goal: furthering your child's growth, preferably while showing him or her a good time. "Parents should view summer camp as part of a year-round educational experience. Just because kids have fun at camp doesn't mean they're not learning," says Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the American Camping Association. "Instead of academics, the ‘curriculum' will be independent living and developing kids' self-confidence so they know they can function away from mom and dad. Camp also develops kids' social skills, including decision making and how to get along with different types of people.

"With all the pressure on schools to emphasize academics, they just don't have as much time to address these issues of social and life skills," he says. "Summer camp has become even more important than it used to be."

Most kids learn those skills at traditional hiking-in-the-woods, swimming-in-the-lake camps just like the ones their parents attended. As many as 90 percent of the nearly 12,000 camps operating in America are traditional camps, Kaplan estimates.

The cost for a week away at camp ranges from a few hundred dollars for a week at a traditional camp run by a non-profit organization such as the YMCA, to a couple of thousand for a high-end specialty camp.

For $400 or less, camps run by the Y or some other nonprofit offer co-educational facilities in a rural setting fairly close to an urban center. Campers stay in screened cabins, eat in a dining hall and travel down the path to a central shower. Programming tends to be a mix of athletics and nature activities and programs last one week.

For slightly more, generally $500 or more a week, for-profit camps offer a traditional camping experience, but usually serve either boys or girls exclusively, tend to be located in remote areas such as northern Wisconsin or Minnesota, and generally offer multi-week sessions, Kaplan says.

At the high end, with prices starting around $600 a week, specialty camps generally offer kids more comfortable accommodations in less rustic settings. Most are housed on the campuses of colleges or prep schools to give campers ready access to athletic fields as well as classrooms, recital halls and theaters. Programming tends to focus on the area of specialization. Campers stay in dorm rooms, eat in a cafeteria and walk down the hall to shower.

Camp Tuckabatchee

For Help American Camping Association www.acacamps.org

American Camping Association, Illinois chapter Call (312) 332-0833 for help in choosing the right camp for your child.

Camp Tuckabatchee, located 90 miles west of Chicago in Ottawa, is an independent, non-profit and coeducational traditional camp. Most activities take place on the camp's 150-acre wooded grounds near Starved Rock State Park. It offers nine one-week sessions per summer, with different programs available for children ages 7-14. Executive Director Kelly Bunnell says the $275 per week fee makes Camp Tuck, as it is affectionately known, one of the lowest priced camps in Illinois for the services it offers. For example, horseback riding, a pricey add-on at many other camps, is included in the fee.

Bunnell believes that kids get excited by the challenge of rustic living and camping in tents. "You'd think 12-14 year-old girls would be the last ones to want to live in tents and cook over a fire, but this age group always fills up fast," she says. "My theory is that it's because they have more independence in this program than they do at home or even at many other camps."

The back-to-basics approach of Camp Tuckabatchee has won the loyalty of Mary Krystinak of West Chicago. Her children, Katelyn and Kelly, 17-year-old twins, and Jonathan, 11, have been going since they were 8. "We prefer a rough, rustic camp experience. Otherwise, it's too much like going to a spa. We wanted the kids to experience life without video games, TV and air conditioning," says Krystinak. "The first year, the girls stayed for one week. Each year after, they talked us into sending them for an additional week. Finally, we told them we would pay for only two weeks, then they would have to save their money and pay for any additional weeks, which they've done."

Specialty camps

With specialty camps typically costing more than double what traditional camps charge, what motivates parents to send their children to these camps? The child's passion for the specialty, whether it be soccer, computers, theater or aviation. For some families, an investment in a specialty camp may be an investment in the child's future.

Becky Seaton, who lives just north of Rockford in Roscoe, sent her 13-year-old son Derek to the Experimental Aviation Association's Air Academy in Oshkosh, Wis., for the first time last summer. "Derek wants to learn to fly as a hobby, then pursue engineering as a career, but some careers combine aviation with engineering, so who knows where this might lead?" she says.

A child should be a serious enthusiast to warrant a camp as intensive as the Air Academy, which has stringent entrance requirements for campers, says Rick McClellan, also of Roscoe. His son, Daniel, 15, is a veteran of the camp. "If my son had just wanted a fun getaway, I would not have sent him to Air Academy," McClellan says. "It's more than a let's-go-do-something-cool kind of place. It's for kids who want a pretty serious exposure to aviation."

After completing an admissions process that includes submitting the child's grades, a written personal statement and two letters of recommendation, campers travel to Oshkosh, where they stay in a $4 million lodge and eat restaurant-type meals. "We always have campers who have an aviator in the family, but there are also many other kids who are the first ones in their family to want to fly," says camp director Chuck Larsen. "These are all very good, bright kids who have a demonstrated interest in aviation."

Children ages 12 and 13 enroll in a five-day course that includes designing, building and flying kites and model rockets and taking actual airplane rides, in addition to a healthy dose of physical activity. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds design, build and fly model aircraft, balloons and rockets, use a flight simulator and take airplane rides during their six-day sessions. In their nine-day sessions, teens ages 16-18 graduate to advanced model rocketry and actual aircraft construction, including welding and sheet metal work. There's also flight training ground school that includes aerial navigation, aircraft systems and weather and climate training. Air Academy camp fees range from $500 to $2,000 per week.

McClellan, himself an amateur pilot, concedes that it's expensive, but believes it's worth every penny. "The first time Daniel came home from Air Academy, an amazing transformation had occurred in terms of his maturity," McClellan says. "When he got into that environment where everyone had a keen, shared interest, it was like turning on a light bulb."

Will kids camp this year?

Balancing the finances: What is camp worth to your family?

Jim Buffington of Chicago sees a financial benefit to accommodating the wishes of his son Jay, 14, and daughter Bridget, 12, to spend the entire summer at Camp Tuckabatchee in Ottawa. "I think camp is actually more affordable than having them home when you factor in my vacation time and the food, entertainment and activity money they'd need for a whole summer," he says.

Gayle Pervos of Buffalo Grove sees more intangible benefits to sending her daughters, Stephanie, 18, and Lonnie, 14, to Harand Theatre and Sports Camp in Beaver Dam, Wis. The girls, who are competitive ice-skaters, don't have time for singing and dancing during the school year. But, at Harand, their morning are spent in musical theater rehearsals capped by afternoons of athletics. Each session culminates in fully-staged performances of a major musical such as South Pacific. For 2002, fees were $2,175 for three weeks or $4,250 for six weeks.

Pervos is the first to admit that Harand is not a cheap camp option, but she believes it is worth the money. "Camp is something we prioritize for in our spending. I didn't go to camp but my husband did and he's always felt strongly that camp is an important part of children's development," she says.

Finally, parents should bear in mind it never hurts to ask for financial aid from a camp. "Even the most high-end camps will usually offer scholarship help if needed, but they don't typically advertise this fact," says Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the American Camping Association.

Chuck Larsen, director of the Experimental Aviation Association's Air Academy in Oshkosh, Wis., corroborates this: "Since I started the camp in 1984, I have never turned away a youngster for lack of money," he says. "We've gotten every deserving kid here one way or another."

—Darcy Lewis

In view of the sluggish economy and concerns about terrorism, parents might be waiting to see whether other families are foregoing camp altogether. If demand decreases, they reason, camp prices may fall. But a discount mentality has never caught on in the camp sector.

The summer of 2001 was a banner time for camp enrollment. After the 9/11 attacks, the American Camping Association warned its members to expect a downturn for 2002.

It didn't happen at YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside. Enrollment actually rose last year, says director Rona Roffey. "I had several families tell me they weren't able to take a family vacation for financial reasons, so they wanted their kids to go have fun at camp. I expect that trend to continue in 2003." Camp Duncan serves kids ages 7-18. Rates range from $475 for one week to $720 for two weeks.

Camp Tuckabatchee's Bunnell believes people might cut down the number of weeks they attend in 2003. "Campers who have been coming for years will be back because their families will do what's necessary to get them here," she says. "New campers will be a harder sell, though."

Even the higher-end specialty camps are holding their own despite the sagging economy. Space Camp, perhaps the best known of all specialty camps, is in the midst of "the largest renovation in Space Camp history," says spokesman Al Whitaker. Fees for each 5-day session are $799, not including transportation to Huntsville, Ala.

Enrollment is particularly brisk at sister program Aviation Challenge and the Space Camp sessions that focus on robotics or blend aviation with space issues, he says. Programs are for ages 9 to adult.

Closer to home, The Air Academy also reports 2001 was a banner year. The Wisconsin camp had campers sleeping in roll-away beds last year because it exceeded 100 percent enrollment for the first time. Camp director Larsen theorizes that the terrorist attacks may have helped his camp's enrollment: "Aviators tend to be strong-willed, independent people, and there was definitely a feeling of not wanting to let terrorists control what they and their families do."

At Harand Theatre and Sports Camp in Beaver Dam, Wis., 2001 was a huge year, while 2002 was not. Co-director Janice Lovell of Evanston hopes to average out for 2003. "The more people and the media talk about the economy improving, the more they'll decide to spend the money on summer camp again," she says.

"At my camp, we create an environment where everyone has fun as equals and learns values," says Camp Duncan's Roffey. "A computer or other specialty camp can do the same thing: Kids just happen to learn computers along with their life skills. The important thing is that they get to camp in the first place."

Darcy Lewis is a freelance writer who lives in Riverside with her husband and two boys, ages 3 and 8.


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