The COVID-19 pandemic greatly altered an entire year of annual traditions — including summer camp for kids. But this year, camp is making a comeback throughout California.
“We have kind of have unprecedented levels of interest in camp this year,” said Kendal Scott, education manager with the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science (TINS), which runs a camp for children ages 4-17 in the Tahoe Basin.
“We actually opened up two new sections of camp … so yeah, I definitely think people are really excited.”
Scott said more outings are now on the summer camp schedule, like overnight backcountry hikes. Last year, those were canceled because of COVID-19.
But expanding camp operations is not the only issue on the minds of some in the camp industry. There’s a new push to make this childhood tradition more inclusive of different races, cultures, and of those in the LGBTQ communities.
“The camp industry is, slowly ... working on creating more spaces that directly support and make safe for the non-dominant culture,” said Liz Kimmelman, owner of Tumbleweed Day Camp in Los Angeles and a member of the American Camp Association.
“The considerations and the thoughts and the questioning is happening like I haven’t seen it before.”
Kimmelman says creating a more diverse and inclusive camp culture is not just about providing camp scholarships for economically disadvantaged children. She says it’s also important to reconsider some long-held camp traditions — like using native-sounding words and images of tepees.
“We are greatly culturally appropriating indigenous iconography,” said Kimmelman. “I’m acknowledging it and we’re going to do something about it.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which the state of California is using to model its regulations, recommend those 12 and older be vaccinated. No vaccines are currently approved for children younger than 12, though trials are underway.
They also say youth day and overnight camps where everyone is fully vaccinated prior to the start of camp can operate at full capacity without masking and without physical distancing, except where required by local regulations.
With kids starting to interact with many other children after more than a year of keeping physical distance, experts say camps could use this summer’s reboot to focus on kids’ mental well-being.
Camp can be fun for kids, but it can also be stressful or anxiety-producing.
“The way that anxiety works is the more we avoid something we’re afraid of the more that anxiety really grows,” says Dr. Heather Bernstein, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute in the Bay Area. “So that fear about what’s it going to be like, what are kids going to think of me, am I going to be okay, has had kind of a lot of time to build up.”
Bernstein says camp staff and parents should acknowledge that by giving the children space to talk about their feelings.
“Then helping them problem-solve and ... come up with strategies to live with the anxiety and still go to camp,” she said.
Recently, while hiking with roughly a dozen young kids along a trail near Donner Lake in the Sierra Nevada, the TINS group of day camp children was sidetracked to observe a curious insect resting on a boulder that one of the day campers had spotted.
The camp leader, Kendal Scott, helped the kids focus on the bug.
“An approach I like to take if I am not particularly excited about a spider or something is to ask kids specific questions about what they are looking at; what colors are on the spider's body, what kinds of things do you think this spider might eat, do you think it has eggs nearby, questions like this,” Scott says. “Practical questions like this help take the focus off gut reactions of fear, and usually prompt kids to investigate more, even if it is just the area around the spider.”
Scott practices what she preaches. She got the kids excited about this bug, a hoverfly, by asking all sorts of questions about its body and why it might be resting there.
The kids truly got excited, not frightened by the insect as a result.
This story is part of an ongoing series called Shared Spaces — about the challenges we face as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. If you have comments or story suggestions related to this, email Randol at [email protected]
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