Tech camps for kids: Get the right fit

Flash animation or tennis? As summer camps open for business, parents need to seek out a good balance. Photos: Kids groove on tech at camp Ten cool camp choices

Hello modder, hello Java. Here I blog from my own Flash-animated Web site.

The next generation of high-tech summer camps offers unique opportunities that may make adults wish they themselves could go.

The number of day camps has grown by about 90 percent in the last 20 years, according to statistics released by the American Camp Association. The ACA reports that more than 10 million children annually attend summer camp and that 12,000 day and residential camps exist in the U.S.

Tech camps, camps with a bent toward science or technology, are on the rise, with a 16 percent increase in computer camps in particular since 2000. Subjects range from human anatomy to robotics to Flash animation.

But are children better off being left to play in the dirt or in a pick-up game of basketball on their own?

It depends on the camp, the kid and their age, according to Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University.

"I don't want to sound like a naturalist, but we spend a lot of time in front of the TV and computer and not exploring what we can do physically or psychologically," Hirsh-Pasek said.

"You go to a college campus and stay on a computer all day, but then you go to tennis camp and you're outdoors, but playing tennis all day. You have to figure out what the mix is and what the specialty is and if it gives your child a well-rounded experience," she said.

Parents should use the same criteria for evaluating a good tech camp as they would for a general-interest camp, according to Ann Sheets, the national president of the ACA. The counselor/teacher ratio should be about one adult for every six children under age 10, 1 to 8 for 10- to 11-year-olds and 1 to 10 for middle school and older, she said.

Day camps that completely submerse a child in one subject, whether its Web site design or gymnastics, are fine at any age, as long as it's what both the kid and parents want, Sheets said. When it comes to residential camps, however, she recommended the average one-week length of stay for kids under middle school age.

Like Hirsch-Pasek, Sheets is a proponent of finding a camp that gets kids out and about, in addition to offering education.

"With the concern now about obesity and lack of being in the outdoors, I do think it's important for parents to remember that the summer is important for things in addition to academic prep, and to look at the whole opportunity that the summertime presents for children, regardless of age," Sheets said.

Parents who send their child to a focused-subject camp might also want to mix in a couple of weeks at a general-interest camp during the summer, she said.

But are parents and camps listening to this school of thought? Statistics show that there's a new interest in focused programs. About 71 percent of camps specialize in one or more activities. There has also been a 40 percent increase in academic camps since 2000, according to statistics from the ACA.

"Being smart for a lot of kids is a cultural issue right now. We say, if you're a geek that's great, cause guess what--the owner of Microsoft was a geek and look where he is."
--Bernard Harris, president, The Harris Foundation

One man is managing to get kids out of the classroom, while using the camp experience as a tool for combating the stigma that being smart is just not cool.

Bernard Harris, the first African-American to walk in space, is an astronaut, pilot, physician and now a venture capitalist. At The ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camps (BHSSC), middle school students are exposed to the sciences and math, but with a few twists.

"What we try to do is open their mind and frame of reference to give them the experience. If you know about a thing you become comfortable, whereas things that are unknown to you, we tend to be fearful of and don't want to stretch," he said. "Some kids don't know what an engineer is, that they are responsible for building all these interesting things. And so we provide an environment so they feel that it's OK to like science and to be smart."

Projects at his camps include hands-on lab work and field trips to places like , the virtual-reality oil lab at Exxon Mobile (the camp's primary monetary sponsor), natural-science museums, hospital gross anatomy labs and the touring Body Worlds exhibit. The camps are free to anyone who can get in; the entry process is based on grades and teacher recommendations.

"Being smart for a lot of kids is a cultural issue right now. We say, 'If you're a geek that's great, cause guess what--the owner of Microsoft was a geek and look where he is. I was a geek and look where I am,'" Harris said.

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