If Holden Fisher’s mother has her way, he won’t have a dull moment this summer. In the coming weeks, he will attend Lego camp, clay camp, nature camp, tennis camp, trampoline camp, “gym and swim” camp and a program at his school.
His mom, Kirsten Fisher, started a spreadsheet in March to organize the camps her 4-year-old would attend this summer.
“Now my son is set for a really fun and exceptionally busy summer,” says Ms. Fisher, who is 42 and knows a few things about planning as the chief executive of a service company, Imagine Home Organization, in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Many parents remember childhood summers spent at the same sleep-away camp or neighborhood pool. But camps are becoming shorter and specialized, often just running for a week at a time. Summer is a time to improve at the piano, brush up on math skills or get a head start on fall athletics—with parents fretting about how to fit it all in. Children can also sample new sports or pastimes without committing for an entire semester or school year.
Parents find that exposure to a variety of topics ends up helping children to discover a passion. In 2014, Jackson Aldrich from Los Altos, Calif. designed and printed a modern house at a “3-D Modeling and Printing” camp at Galileo Learning, an Oakland-based company that runs innovation camps for children. Jackson, now 14, says he is considering becoming an architect.
Summer camp enrollment is rising, according to the American Camp Association, an industry group, and the majority of campers stay one week or less. Ten years ago, only 42% of campers stayed for such short sessions. Last summer, only 9% of residential camp sessions lasted the traditional seven to eight weeks.
But even those camps. with such traditional pursuits as swimming, archery and campfires, are adding options for shorter stays and educational programs. The American Camp Association started tracking activities involving STEM—short for science, technology, engineering and math—in 2011, and now 18% of its member camps offer them, says chief executive Tom Holland.
On average, day camps accredited by the American Camp Association cost $314 a week last year, and overnight camps cost $768 a week. Specialty programs are often more costly.
In July, Zach and Coby Cantor of Bethesda, Md., 9 and 7 years old, are scheduled to attend a Washington Nationals baseball camp run by the Headfirst Cos., which offers summer camps in the Washington, D.C., area. The weeklong camp, which aims to bring out “the personal best in high-potential kids” and includes a Nats camp uniform and behind-the-scenes tour of Nationals Park, costs $595 a child. Parents Neil and Shari Cantor say they typically spend between $6,000 and $7,000 on summer camps, which this year also include skateboarding, multisport and outdoors camps.
“We are seeing kids at younger and younger ages looking for a variety of experiences and specialization across sports and academics,” says Brendan Sullivan, president of Headfirst.
Last year, Headfirst lowered the age for specialty camps by offering a science-and-engineering camp for incoming kindergartners and first-graders, rather than starting specialization with children entering second grade. This year, it is launching Connect, Create, Discover, an academic, project-based program designed to teach science, art and teamwork. Mr. Sullivan predicts parents will look for camps boosting digital and coding skills.
Wescina Fox, 29, of Los Angeles balked when her 7-year-old son, Jai, brought home a brochure for Star Camps, which runs 30 summer programs in the L.A. area. He was excited about a skateboarding camp that costs over $300 a week.
As a military veteran who works as a truck driver, Ms. Fox qualified for a program that would fund around 80% of the cost. After school ends on June 10, Jai will start two weeks of skateboarding camp, followed by six weeks of Superstar Camp, which includes sports, science, cooking, math, art, dance and a weekly field trip.
Katya Bozzi, Star Camps’ executive director, says the most popular camp this summer is Problem Solvers: Junior Escape Room, inspired by an adventure game for grown-ups where players are locked in a room and use clues and teamwork to escape. Children at the camp create codes and puzzles to encrypt a treasure box that parents and fellow campers have to unlock.
Susannah Gray and John Lyons of New York City hired a camp consultant Jill Tipograph, director of New York City-based Everything Summer, to help set up summer plans for their 16-year-old son Jack. After talking to the family and Jack about their goals for the summer Ms. Tipograph, sends them a selection of camps that match Jack’s interests—nature, animals and community service. Last summer, Jack attended a wilderness camp, followed by 17 days of work at a wolf sanctuary, both in Colorado. This year, he will attend a service and cultural immersion program in Thailand.
“These teen programs give kids an edge as they start thinking about what they want to do when they grow up,” says 54-year-old Ms. Gray, the chief financial officer of investment firm Royalty Pharma. Some parents also hope summer experiences will provide material for college essays.
Some caution against the trend toward multiple short camps. Ms. Tipograph says such programs don't teach the same independence, leadership and social skills that several weeks at an overnight camp can. Building friendships and discovering new passions happen best without parents, she says. Critics say a new environment each week takes a lot of adjustment for children.
The Road Less Traveled
Children often ask to be busy in the summer. Laura Kuruvilla, a 14-year-old ninth-grader from San Diego, is set to spend 3½ weeks at Camp Kiniya, a YMCA camp in Colchester, Vt. She asked her mother, Susan Kuruvilla, if she could start a tennis camp the day after her return.
Her brother, 13-year-old Thomas, has a free week before his departure for Camp Dudley, a YMCA boys camp in Westport, N.Y. He initially planned to spend the week at another camp, but now will spend it with a friend, supervised by the friend’s nanny. “For him, the thought of sitting at home with nothing to do is horrible,” says Ms. Kuruvilla.
Join our 8,000+ subscribers to be kept in the loop with a weekly update on new trips, outdoor adventures, special offers, and more!
Follow us as we travel the world and change lives.