I have distinct memories from childhood summer camp experiences in the 1970s — of leatherwork and lanyard-stringing, campfire skits and canoeing. Back then, kids went to sleep-away camp to learn the finer points of communing with nature, meeting new friends and returning home with a tie-dye T-shirt, dirty laundry and a host of mosquito bites. Our parents wrote to us, and we might have written back, but camp was a sacred place about which we divulged little.
Today's summer camps run a diverse and lengthy spectrum of a few hours to a few weeks, usually with specific goals in mind. Like soccer? There's a camp for that. Enjoy music? Football? Taekwondo? You're covered. Particularly for working families, camp opportunities during the summer months are as much about necessity of child care as they are about experiences, with most camps hitting the ground running the day after school lets out in May. Whether sleep-away or day programs, camps in Alaska are popular choices for kids, and rosters swell almost as soon as registration opens. And it's open now.
Selecting a summer camp is rarely simple due to an expanse of opportunities around the state and the number of slots available. A few weeks ago I sat down with members of the American Camp Association's Alaska chapter during one of their regular meetings. I learned a lot about camps, kids and how the experience has changed since I first tossed a sleeping bag on a top bunk at Camp Don Bosco in 1976.
American Camp Association
A community of camp professionals, the American Camp Association (ACA), has 100 years of history as a trade group and accreditation source for camp facilities and organizations around the United States. Camps that belong to ACA (there are 9,000, according to the ACA website) receive the benefit of institutional knowledge of programming that fits each camp's unique style. With the added benefit of a comprehensive and rigorous accreditation process, it's a big deal to be affiliated with ACA, according to Tom Burek, director of the popular Trailside Discovery camps in the Southcentral area.
"The American Camp Association collaborates with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Red Cross and other agencies to make sure member camps provide safe, healthy and developmentally appropriate learning experiences for kids," Burek says. "It is a pretty thorough review of operations and management to get accreditation."
In addition, Burek says, the ACA website is a resource for parents looking for camps around the country, with tips and suggestions for planning, packing and dealing with age-old issues like homesickness and making new friends.
What parents should know
Summer camp experts like Burek agree that the concept of camp has evolved over the years. Once parents labeled clothing and packed trunks full of clothes and simply shipped kid and caboodle off for weeks at a time with little information. But today's parents, and the camps themselves, want to know more. Camp administrators mentioned several times the goal of creating independent, confident kids with a connection to their world, but this requires communication from both sides at sign-up.
Share details that might make a difference between an exceptional camp experience and a purely mediocre one, says Alaska administrative staff. Everything, from minor health concerns to strategies for managing difficult behaviors, matters — and be as clear as possible on forms and in discussions with camp personnel. Some organizations like Camp Fire Alaska have family service managers available to help parents navigate challenges, be they allergies or custodial disputes. The key is to talk openly and honestly so your child has the best prospect for a memorable, fun experience.
When presenting the idea of summer camp to kids, be sure you have their interests in mind. While I believe children should have a nature-based camp experience at least once in their lives, taking into account a youngster's enthusiasm for sports, fine arts and other extracurricular activities that may translate into a truly outstanding camp experience.
Cost can be a roadblock for some parents, as programs supporting arts, crafts, field trips, and a big staff come with a price tag. But nearly every camp in Alaska offers some form of financial aid through scholarships at various levels, and as Tom Burek put it, "If a kid wants to come to camp, we'll get him or her to camp."
Parents should ask about "nuts-and-bolts" items too, like transportation to and from camp, before or after-care for day programs, and clear packing lists of items to bring (and not to bring).
Finding a camp
Not sure where or when to begin?
Now is the time to start looking, as some — such as Camp Fire Alaska and Trailside Discovery — have already opened registration for 2016 programs. A good place to start, no matter where you live, is the ACA website (acacamps.org), where you can search for day, overnight, or family camp options. As a test I did a quick search for day camps in Alaska and came up with 85 programs serving kids age 4 and up, ranging from museum-based indoor camps to more outdoor-centric organizations with long histories in Alaska.
Anchorage's REI store will host a summer camp fair from noon-4 p.m. Saturday in its community room. Alaska camps with an outdoor theme will be on hand to answer questions, offer suggestions and take registrations from parents.
For families new to the summer camp concept, or as a precursor to sending your own child off to camp by him or herself, I will be partnering with the Alaska Huts Association to sponsor a Family Camp on June 18-19 at their historic Manitoba cabin about 90 minutes south of Anchorage.
A scenic 20-minute hike from the Seward Highway, Manitoba cabin and yurts will be the base camp for two days of traditional summer camp activities, including plenty of marshmallows and campfire skits. Visit alaskahuts.org for details, or better yet, register at REI's camp fair.
Erin Kirkland is author of Alaska on the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children and publisher of AKontheGO.com. She is a former camper, camp counselor and camp director. Connect with her at firstname.lastname@example.org.