Many of us remember acquiescing to “no, thank you” portions, weekly square dances with the late Slim Sterling and end-of-summer musicales. Peach-pit rings were a two-month project as were the seeds that, once planted, grew into the vegetables we proudly brought home for dinner.
Back then, summer camp was simple, and predictable. It was what one's kids did during the summertime.
Times, however, have changed – just ask this generation's camp directors and campers.
Pressured by the realities of today's economy, organizers are having to be as creative and resourceful as ever, forcing them to venture beyond the paper-mache figures and kiln-baked paperweights of yesteryear and tailor camp agendas and activities towards an increasingly diverse and technologically-savvy pool of campers and parents. Their plight has even garnered national attention as of late, with the New York Times running a feature story last week titled When S'Mores Aren't Enough: The New Economics of Summer Camp.
To some degree, challenges faced by directors today are not brand new, however, and most have found ways – however diverse – of staying afloat.
For Jim Libman, owner and director of Camp Hillard Day Camp in Scarsdale – in its 83rd successful season this summer – a major part of keeping up with the times has involved providing a new and fresh product each and every year.
“Every year you want to make the next year better with a new facility or new staffing,” Libman said. “A trend in the mid-1990s was to upgrade the camp in some way, and this was driven by changing needs and a sense of the marketplace.”
While Camp Hillard still very much offers the classic time-honored camp experiences and activities, Libman believes an important shift is being made towards a much more specialized and personalized camp experience, especially with children and parents involved in sports or creative and performing arts.
“Basketball, tennis, baseball, archery, we have those and train staff differently to teach those sports,” he said. “We added lacrosse, which is popular for older boys and girls, and specialization for kids to spend more time on the sport of their choice. We build on the foundations started by my grandfather in 1929. On one hand we stayed traditional with popular programs, and we’ve improved them during the years.”
Carole Berman, executive director of Challenge Day Camp in Bronxville, has seen almost a complete overhaul of activities and opportunities offered to her customers.
“We instituted 18 new classes this summer,” Berman said. “I think it needed to be refreshed and exciting.”
For the past 31 years, Challenge Camp has offered a multitude of age-appropriate courses for motivated children ages four to 15 at William E. Cottle Elementary School in Tuckahoe, everything from clowning and theatre, to magic, martial arts and science. An association with the district has allowed the camp to use the school’s facilities – turf athletic field, computer lab and art studios – leading to the creation of new workshops like “Circuit City,” where kids open up a computer and are taught how it works, and “Google World,” where campers are introduced to virtual trips, blogs and web-page creation.
Berman credits the inspiration behind new course and activity ideas to her campers and her experiences with them. Last summer, campers helped create a web-only version of The Challenge Camp Magazine. Before that, an accidental fall and broken foot led to the implementation of “Dr. GoodBODY,” where kids learn things like why and how bones keep them standing and why spinning makes them dizzy. Other ideas have come from Berman’s personal experiences, and a need to constantly keep campers excited and intrigued about what will be available to them next.
“The year before I was in Paris and went to an art show,” Berman said. “After seeing one of the paintings I decided it [the new class] would be ‘Project Runway,’ in which campers create and style their international wardrobe designs.”
For some local camps and camp directors, however, the economy has not necessarily led to a complete re-vamping of programs and activities. The Bronxville Day Camp, for example, seeks to offer the fun and adventure of summer camp through sports, arts and crafts, stories/dramatics and music – no wires, keyboards, or screens involved.
“I think the campers enjoy the fact that there are no computers around,” said camp director Tom Blank. “They all seem to have plenty of time to be online in their daily lives.”
The Bronxville Camp still provides an age-specific camp experience – operating the Junior Day Camp for children ages four and five out of the Bronxville Elementary School and the Senior Day Camp for children entering first through seventh grades at the Boy Scout Cabin – while seeking to appeal to the tastes and preferences staff members feel will never change.