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VOL. 37 | NO. 5 | Friday, February 01, 2013

Unplugged: Summer of adventure awaits

By Hollie Deese

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Summer camps have a way of taking you back to a bygone era when lanyards and bunkmates ruled over texting and Facebook.

Camps have never really lost their appeal, but in a completely wired society with technology becoming the norm for children at younger and younger ages, the camp-by-the-lake experience is one way for kids to be kids again while still being cared for in a structured environment.

Several local camps, including some of Middle Tennessee’s most popular – Camp Widjiwagan, Whippoorwill Farm Day and Camp Marymount – are completely unplugged from the Internet so campers can play and make friends while swimming, digging a garden or simply discovering what it’s like to walk in the woods without electronic distraction.

Another plus, says Kim Hutchison, 54, executive director of the activity-based Camp YI (Youth Incorporated) in Rutherford County, is that children are allowed a certain amount of freedom at camp, something they may not often experience at school or home.

A taste of freedom can teach a child critical life skills such as good decision making, character-sharpening, being independent and forging new friendships away from the computer.

“Allow your child to climb that tree,” Hutchison says. “While it gives them skills, it also gives them the confidence to then go home and say ‘You know what, I did that and if I can do that, I can do this.’ It is a stepping stone, a ladder. Believing in yourself is one of the best life lessons you will get.”

Being away from home and school also can build confidence.

“I really hope that schools don’t go year-round because I think kids need a break from the academics,” says Wanda DeWaard with the American Camp Association. “It balances their in-school learning and stems the summer learning loss that everybody worries about. You connect with others in a very basic, human way.’’

A leap of faith

Convincing parents who never went to camp that’s it fine to drop their kids off with a group of strangers for a week can be a challenge for camp directors.

“If you have been to camp you understand,’’ DeWaard says. “If you haven’t, you think it is just a bunch of fun and games and silly pranks like Hollywood presents it. And it is really not.”

It’s hard to use hand-held electronics when cantering on a horse.

-- Photo Courtesy Of Camp Yi

Hutchison, who first went to Camp YI at age 8, says it’s a different era from her childhood.

“When I was growing up you rode your bike, you played in the sandbox or you went to camp,” she says. “There were no other choices.

“Our issue nowadays is convincing parents who don’t realize that their child will be better off with the opportunity. They worry that their child will be lonely or scared, and that is a leap of faith for any parent to take.”

In fact, she says parents ask about background checks and how the camp handles homesickness before they ask more routine questions about certifications and skills.

“That is the knee-jerk reaction, and you can’t fault them for that,” she says. “It is the challenge of every camp director. You can’t guarantee that nothing is going to happen to their child, but you can instill the trust that camp is a worthwhile experience.’’

A camp for every type

If your child is artistic, sporty, musical or dramatic, there is a camp or program – probably more than one – geared for them in Middle Tennessee.

And if there isn’t, you can always make it. That is what Elle Harvey did when she founded A New Leaf Science and Art Camp out of her home eight years ago.

“The summer is really an opportunity to sample different walks of life for these children,” Harvey says. “I was trained as a biologist and involved with the National Science Foundation in designing curriculum with and for teachers, science education in the K-12 classroom, and that just gave me the bug to teach children, and teach them younger and younger.

“A 2-year old is so smart and they ask the best questions, questions there are often no answers for. Or, what our science and philosophy doesn’t know yet, and things are open for conversation.”

This year will be the first at her new five-acre location in West Meade, and so she will only be offering a few weeks this year instead of her usual eight.

“Next year we should be back with a bigger offering,” she says.

Farmers and songwriters

At the nature-based Whippoorwill Farm Day camp, the emphasis is on farming and animals with children even planting their own garden and eating what they harvest. The camp had 1,500 children last summer in one-week sessions of 240 per session. Whippoorwill is on track to have 1,600 this year.

“We are on 50 acres and it is all outdoors,” says Shanelle Lambert with Whippoorwill. “We don’t have an indoor facility, so the kids are very much in the elements.

“We are very much back to the earth and want to make sure kids are out having fun and not stuck inside watching television or sitting on their couch.”

Being Nashville, songwriting camps and programs abound for all ages, including Summer Song Girl Scout songwriting camp, which this year for the first time will include time in a Nashville recording studio.

“As part of getting them from writing the song, to recording it, going in front of the rest of the camp and singing the song as a group, we spend a whole afternoon talking about singing out and projecting yourself as a performer who is confident, and they really do get a sense of confidence,” says program director Kathy Hussey.

“They have so many ideas coming into it that they don’t know are good ideas. They are not aware yet that every idea they have is a fantastic idea. And this is my opportunity to show them that all of their ideas are good and they can create something.”

Safety and counselors

Any camp accredited by the American Camp Association follows a standard set of safety rules that includes mandatory background checks for all employees, staff training, safety guidelines and program standards.

“Most of the people I work with work very hard to make it a quality experience for their campers and meet their experience and needs,” DeWaard says. She says camps should staff people trained in CPR and first aid, and the local rescue squads should be made aware when camp is in session so they are ready to respond. A nurse or someone with medical training should be on site at all times to respond to an emergency or administer medication throughout the day.

“Look (at camp) like you would a day care center for your child,” DeWaard says. “This is someone very precious to you, and these people need to be prepared to take care of your child the way you would.

“So you should ask questions, visit the camp, feel comfortable with the director and their philosophy. Accidents can happen and will happen, even with the best precautions and safety procedures. But if a camp has been there a long time, you can be sure they are doing the right thing.”

Counselors are a crucial part of the camping experience, especially for the kids who look up to them.

“Counselors can have a huge impact on young children,” DeWaard says. “I remember adoring my counselor and wanting to be just like her when I grew up. If you have really good counselors who care about children, these college students who could be working somewhere and making a whole lot more money for the summer, it is because they want to be in education or human development or psychology, so they work at summer camp because they like kids and want to be good at it.

“It is a win-win for everyone involved.”