Going to Extremes 

These aren't your mother's summer camps.

Twenty years ago, we had latch-key kids. Now, we have boot-camp kids. Born to Boomer parents — soccer moms and high-tech dads who can't take a vacation without having their BlackBerry on hand — the children of today don't just "go outside and play" like their parents once did. They are tracked to be overachievers, and alongside their homework and friends they have to squeeze in piano lessons, capoeira classes, or accelerated algebra. Of course, summer vacations should be equally productive. Gone are the days of spending $500 just so that Junior can go off to make lanyards, or sing "Kumbaya."

Summer camps for the contemporary child strive to be purpose-driven yet hip. If Junior excelled in science and math, he can use his summer to learn forensics, install LED panels in a dollhouse, or design things with high-tech graphical programming software. If he sang along with Britney Spears videos, he can learn to be a megastar in his own right. If he rolled around on a skateboard after school, he can graduate to popping ollies or doing tricks off a 20-foot wall.

To remain competitive, today's summer camps must constantly upgrade by offering edgier activities or more chances to rub elbows with real-life professionals. It's no longer satisfactory to teach kids how to ride horses or make a camera from an oatmeal container. A thoroughly modern summer camp must go to extremes.

Sports Camp

Athletic-oriented camps once provided environments for children to acquire important life skills like teamwork, competition, endurance — or at least getting picked last, faking an injury, or learning to tolerate something unpleasant. For Strawberry Canyon Youth Programs co-director Jennifer Selke, none of the aforementioned is quite as valuable as "mastery orientation" — i.e., helping kids get good at what they're already interested in — which she says is one of the main benefits of a popular skateboarding camp she launched in 2000. Selke and her co-director, Sean O'Laughlin, started the camp because they heard that's what kids wanted to do.

"But then I found the camp had its own subculture that was different from lacrosse and rugby," Selke said. For one thing, amateur skaters couldn't come in with a "let's just clobber the other team" kind of mentality. They had to first experience failure and learn how bounce back. In skate camp, that was mandatory, said Selke; "Their first goal is to learn safer ways of falling, that's the first piece before they even get on a board." She added that on the first day of camp, kids have to practice tucking and rolling on a mat. If they can't do it to staff members' satisfaction, they don't get to skate.

Granted, once a camper gets the fundamentals down — first falling, then balance and foot placement — it becomes all about command and expertise. Kids come to camp for two-week sessions, three hours a day. They learn to ollie properly, get tips from pro skaters, and can eventually catapult from a 20-ft. vertical ramp, if they get good enough. The ones who come year after year even get to join an "elite team of skaters," Selke said, and eventually take leadership roles. Though Selke said her program is not quite as daredevil as Cal Adventures' windsurfing classes — which has kids braving the tumultuous waters of the San Francisco Bay — skateboarding can be a very demanding sport. Not to mention the camp helps inculcate values of steadfastness and determination that kids can parlay in other parts of their lives. "In terms of competition they're competing against themselves, and their own performance," she explained. "I find that for kids that's an important orientation."

Geek Camp

Selke made an astute business decision by using her campers as a focus group, and other programs have followed suit. Ellen Blinderman conceptualized a successful Egyptology camp at Lawrence Hall of Science in much the same way — she took a cue from her daughter. "There's a certain age at which kids are really interested in ancient Egypt," said LHS spokesperson Linda Schneider, adding that her own kid got the bug around 9 or 10. The camp, which has kids building pyramids from dry bricks, writing in hieroglyphics, and learning "the scientific secrets of mummification," filled up so fast that LHS decided to hold a special "Ancient Engineers" day on July 30.

But Egypt camp is just the tip of the iceberg. Geek camps may have a bad rep in the popular imagination, but around here they've gotten increasingly cutting-edge. In addition to mummy science, LHS also offers an impressive roster of crime-fighting, superhero, and dinosaur camps, plus food and plant chemistry, and a nanotechnology camp that brings high school students into UC Berkeley labs.

Never to be outdone, rival "edutainment" hub Chabot Space & Science Center is offering its own series of high-octane science camps this year. The catalog features astronaut programs in which kids talk to Mission Control and take simulated missions to Mars; a CSI camp in which everyone involved gets to help solve a crime; and an all-girls camp called Green Dollhouses, in which participants each build a house, then furnish it with solar panels and LED lights. Chabot also offer a robotics class that has a similar analog at LHS. Students in that class use Lego Mindstorms NXT graphic design program — which serves in the real world to test consumer products like cell phones and vehicle airbags to build their own robots and humanoids. For Chabot public programs manager Autumn King, keeping up to date with technology is crucial for camper retention — and hipness is a must. "People that are in the know in the computer world get really excited when I use the word 'Lego Mindstorms.' I guess we got a cool sticker for that one."

Rock Camp

Of course, many kids just want to be rock stars, and the more enterprising ones use summer vacations to advance that goal — traditionally by forming a garage band and recording a couple demos on the cheap. Camp directors and programmers have found ways to harness these desires, as well. Ergo, a recent spate of Making the Band-style summer camps in which kids get to form bands, rehearse in individual practice pads (when PowerChord Academy hit the East Bay last year, it had campers playing in gutted-out, soundproof UC Berkeley dorm rooms), and mingle with real-life celebrities. The best ones teach kids how to deal with industry politics, financial stumbling blocks, and spats between band members, and emphasize the social dimensions of music — that it's about telling a story and creating your own landscape, and not just getting paid.

This year's top pick is Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, held this July at Mills College in Oakland. Formed seven years ago in Portland, Oregon, and now with satellites in several states, this camp is a certified nonprofit that relies on volunteers and donated instruments. In addition to music and songwriting classes, Girls Rock Camp offers zine-making, screen-printing, image, and self-defense workshops for 50 girls ages 8-18, plus lunchtime concerts with a variety of guest musicians (past sessions have featured cameos from Peaches and the Gossip), and a staff handpicked to expose young women to all genres of music. Program coordinator Sarah Mehlfeld said the reference to rock in the camp's name is mostly a play on another meaning of rock — "we rock, like, we're awesome," she said.

Unlike some of its counterparts, Bay Area Girls Rock isn't really about glamour or the cult of fandom and adoration that comes with being a rockstar. Anyone can come, Mehlfeld said (scholarships are provided for those who can't afford the $400 tuition, and campers are selected from the applicant list, with the idea of having a really diverse group of people), and the emphasis is on self-esteem, collaboration, and tolerance. Even during the lunchtime performances, Girls Rock tries to create an environment in which everyone is equal, Mehlfeld added: "It isn't like 'Oh, you're a rock star, and we're just the little girls trying to learn.'"

Most of these camps teach kids how to work in groups and co-exist peacefully, even if they're trying to master a skill, or compete against one another. It's sometimes a tough balancing act. At one camp, however, brotherly love will never be at cross-purposes with the individual's quest for perfection. Sponsored by the India Community Center in Milpitas, and held at the Vedanta Society Retreat adjacent to Point Reyes, this nonprofit cultural immersion program teaches the Ghandian principles of truthfulness, tolerance, and community service, offering workshops in yoga and meditation. The name, appropriately enough, is Ghandi Camp.


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