5 S. Wabash St., Suite 1406
Sports camp, religious camp, equestrian camp, dance camp,
cheerleading camp, day camp, overnight camp, outdoor camp, band
camp-the list goes on and on.
For parents, answering the when, how and where of the camp
decision can be a daunting experience rivaled, perhaps, only by the
feeling of dropping the kids off for the first time.
The potential anxiety likely grows for parents with little or no
personal ties to camp life, according to one expert.
My camp ties are limited to two years of Chicago Park District
day camp at Blackhawk Park in the late 1980s and a University of
Minnesota baseball camp after high school graduation. Overnight
camping, fishing and general outdoor fun were something that
happened on family trips, not in the company of dozens of other
With that backdrop, the search began for an understanding of
what camp is really about these days. Step #1 was to figure out
exactly where to start. The answer came after a few mouse clicks
led me to the American Camp Association's Illinois office.
Executive Director Gordie Kaplan quickly offered his best piece
of advice. "I would suggest people call me," Kaplan says, adding he
can give pinpoint answers to specific questions.
He's certainly got the background to tackle such questions.
Kaplan has spent 40 years with ACA, seeing all the trends and
challenges that come with maintaining interest and viability in
camps. He's watched as suburbanization outside Chicago has
swallowed up territory where camps once operated. And, now, he's
keeping an eye on how technology is used to help kids get excited
about going away to camp.
Kaplan-who holds a degree in camping-says to keep things simple
to start. He recommends first-time campers try a traditional camp
instead of a specialty camp, which can focus on a sport or
"I suggest parents not limit themselves," Kaplan says. "One way
to burn out a young athlete (or performer) is to overdose."
Traditional camps "try to provide a diverse palette" consisting
of outdoor excursions and managed risk activities with a goal of
increasing a child's confidence and independence, while broadening
"They give more opportunities for the child to excel," Kaplan
Most overnight camps serving the Chicago area are now located in
Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, but they still offer an
unmistakable mystique in Kaplan's view.
"It's a special experience to be out away from the city where
sights and sounds are different," he says.
For some families, that's not an option, which is the reason for
another trend noted by Kaplan: "Now, there are more day camps."
Sixty-five percent of camps have reported steady or increased
enrollment in the last five years, ACA research indicates.
The number of day camps alone has grown 90 percent since the
early 1990s. Most park districts around Chicagoland offer some type
of camp program to keep kids active while out of school.
One place where the popularity of day camps is obvious is the
Chicago Park District. Its program annually has around 30,000
campers in 230 parks across the city. That means parents need to
sign their kids up early to lock in a spot at their preferred
"It's very popular (and) kind of competitive," park district
spokesman Marta Juaniza says.
Chicago's program hasn't changed much over the years. It runs
six hours a day for six weeks, with extended time available in the
morning and afternoon to accommodate parents' schedules. Pricing
ranges from $1 to $3 per hour depending on the camp, Juaniza
Park district campers are offered daily activities that include
sports, nature and arts activities, and swim time. Specialty camps
for urban campers and those interested in the performing arts vary
from year to year, with a learning-to-sail camp being one of the
newest offerings, Juaniza explains.
"It's having something structured that's also fun … while making
friends and making connections," she says.
There are no restrictions on which camp in Chicago a child can
go to, but that's where space and availability can become an issue.
A new website will aid in the registration process, visitchicagoparkdistrict.com.
Day camps are an affordable alternative to overnight programs
and also act as a way to ease everyone into something very
different than day care, Kaplan says.
"The focus is on fun and adventure," he says. "Camp provides an
opportunity for a child to be independent."
Whether you're talking about overnight or day camp, Kaplan
encourages parents and children to make choices together. He
suggests visiting camps so the kids can see their peers in action.
Many places have websites or DVDs that give an active presentation
on a particular camp experience.
"It's real important to involve the child in the decision," he
Although the learning curve for kids is always top-of-mind for
parents, Kaplan points out the adults also have to assess their
readiness when it comes to sending their kids away to camp.
Kaplan suggests, "Are they willing to let go?" and, "Are they
going to be comfortable?" as two questions parents need to consider
If finances are an issue, ACA and the Illinois Department of
Human Services offer camp grants to families who receive medical
care from the state. The referral process for this program, which
has limited space, begins in April.
"It helps kids from the cities have more appreciation for the
out of doors," Kaplan says.
Dan Campana is a dad and freelance writer living in
Dan Campana is a dad and freelance writer living in Streamwood.
See more of Dan's stories here.
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