1Supp Camps Kids 03.15.12
1Supp Camps Kids 03.15.12

Summer specialty camps take off as kids hone their skills

It used to be that all a kid had packed in her bag as she headed off to summer day camp was a bathing suit, towel and sunscreen. But nowadays, that bag may also hold a chef’s hat, dance shoes, theater makeup or tennis racquet.

That’s because, rather than just getting a taste of a various fun-filled activities at a traditional day camp, parents and children are increasingly opting for specialty camps in which kids focus on developing specific skill sets.

“The specialty camp thing is a national trend,” said Michele-Bridget Ragsdale, director of the JCamp program at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto. “It’s become the most-preferred camp experience over the past 10 years or so, and the trend started to hit the Bay Area JCC camps in the past three or four years.”

Cheerleading campers at the Oshman Family JCC photo/courtesy of ofjcc

According to Ragsdale, who directs youth and family programming at the JCC, traditional camps had been the core of its summer program, and specialty camps were few and considered separate from the main day camp program. But now, fully 50 percent of children attending JCamp opt for weeklong special-focus camps. Ragsdale said that enrollment in the specialty camps jumped by 43 percent from 2010 to 2011, due mainly to the increase in number of such programs JCamp offered.

This summer, there will be 63 special-focus camps from which kids can choose — from Lego engineering, to Broadway stars, to “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” to golf — and things in between.

The JCC of San Francisco has done away with traditional camp altogether for children in grades three to five. “We did this in response to our enrollment statistics from previous years, as well as feedback from a community survey,” said Hannah Long, camp and family programs manager at the JCCSF. Specialty camps for kids in those grades are divided into five “buckets of interest.”

There are: Culinary Camps for cooks and bakers; Discovery Camps for science lovers; Passport Camps for kids wanting to explore San Francisco in off-campus adventures (though some of the other kinds of camps also include off-site trips); Spotlight Camps for the artistically inclined; and Academic Camps for kids who want to sharpen their math, language arts and foreign language skills in a fun way over the summer.

Although the specialty camps focus on building specific skill sets, they basically are a reframing of the JCCSF’s educational philosophy along thematic lines, according to Long. “Specialty camps are still like our traditional camps in that they are about ‘making mensches,’ ” she said. “We are still emphasizing values like friendship, having goals, taking risks, and age-appropriateness in activities.”

Kids have fun at the Addison-Penzak JCC’s tennis camp last summer. photo/courtesy of apjcc

Likewise, Ragsdale emphasized that her specialty camps operate using the same “Jewish lens” as the traditional camps. “Special-focus campers meet with our Jewish-values specialists, just like our other campers,” she said. “And they also have some of the same activities as the rest of the campers. We have a unified camp brand.”

The Osher Marin JCC’s Camp Kehillah offers three types of programming: traditional, special and adventure. Beneath a wide umbrella are all sorts of camps — from Cake Capades, to Magic and Mystery, to Surfing in Santa Cruz.

Camp directors have differing opinions as to what is driving this increased interest in specialty camps. “Interest in them has evolved as kids have had a bigger say in what they do for the summer,” suggested Ian Israel, camp director at the Peninsula JCC in Foster City. “Also, the economy has created a situation where more parents are at home and can take care of their kids during the summer. Consequently, weeklong specialty camps provide a way for kids to go to camp, but on a limited and flexible basis.”

Ragsdale thinks that the dramatic uptick in specialty camp enrollment could be due to parents’ trying to prepare their children for college starting at increasingly younger ages. “They are trying to figure out what their kids are good at or more interested in from an early age. This allows the kids to hone their skills,” she said.

Andrew Mendes, youth, sports and camp director at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos, agrees. He said that as a parent himself, he sees the value in exposing young kids to multiple disciplines in a relatively intensive way. “It opens the doors to the different things life has to offer, and on which they can focus more later on in life,” he explained. “It lets them identify what they are good at and what they like.”

Courtney Jacobson, camp director at the JCC of the East Bay in Berkeley, suspects that kids are attracted to specialty camps “because they get to become an expert. It’s like gaining a trade, and they get to be goal-oriented and work toward a specific output.” She cited the very popular Kids’ Carpentry, Project Runway (fashion and costume design), and Glitter and Razz (performing arts) as examples of camps where the children work toward producing a final product or performance.

Organizing all these specialty camps is a big undertaking, which Ragsdale said begins as soon as camp ends the previous summer. The main challenge is to find the right staff to teach and lead these programs, and it is answered at most Bay Area JCC camps by a combination of in-house staff and outside vendors and experts. For instance, at the Peninsula JCC, Israel brings in former Golden State Warriors player Joel Ellis to lead the basketball clinic specialty camp. And though Ragsdale assigns JCamp staff counselors to each specialty camp group, she also partners with contractors such as Arimaw Productions and Mad Science to deliver specialized content.

Jacobson said the fact that some of her specialty camps are taught by the same people who teach at the JCC’s afterschool program during the academic year is a big draw. She believes both kids and parents appreciate the continuity of learning a specific skill or subject with a teacher whom the kids already know and like.

At the JCCSF, all but one specialty camp instructor (the exception being the chess instructor) are JCC staff. “It’s really important to us that they all be trained through our training program, and it’s great for relationship-building and community,” Long said.

But don’t write off traditional camps just yet, she said. “Trends in camping can be cyclical,” Long cautioned about the explosion in specialty camps’ popularity.

“If you want my personal opinion,” offered Mendes, “I like them and I think they are here to stay. But they will not do away with the traditional day camp.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.