Taking Risks is Part of Camp Experience

Young dancers perform at Camp Arena Stage in 2019. Courtesy: Camp Arena Stage

Taking healthy risks is part of what camp is all about. Swimming, rafting, taking a role in a play, making new friends are experiences that we hope our children will have at camp, that will expand their eagerness to explore new skills and activities. What we do not want is the risk of COVID. As they prepare to open this year, camp directors are determining how best to handle the lingering COVID pandemic, while giving children the new experiences that are what camp is all about.

In advice to camps on preparing to deal with the added risk of COVID, the American Camp Association (ACA) advises camp directors to strengthen the system and processes they have in place and stay vigilant.

“You are no doubt used to dealing with both the expected and unexpected challenges that come with running a camp,” advises the ACA on their website. “Coronavirus is no different.”

One of the few camps that has offered in-person sessions over the last two summers is Valley Mill (valleymill.com). The camp offers a summer day program on 60 wooded acres just outside Germantown, MD. It’s a traditional camp experience, but without the overnight. Valley Millers swim, kayak, do archery and rock-climbing and arts and crafts.

Camp is all outdoors, rain or shine, an advantage in mitigating COVID.

“We like to say, there’s no bad weather, there’s only bad equipment,” Valley Mill owner and Director Evelyn McEwan jokes. Campers are expected to come prepared to negotiate the weather, with rain slickers and sturdy footwear. “We’re not a country club —you come home muddy and dirty,” she said.

McEwan says that the common denominator among parents who send their children to Valley Mill is that they went to camp themselves as children. “If you’ve never been to camp as a kid, you’ve no idea what happens socially; the level of freedom and challenge that they have,” McEwan said.

But in 2020, the camp faced its own challenge: the pandemic. They could legally only take Maryland residents. McEwan said for Valley Mill, there really was no choice but to find a way to open. “We had enrolled all these people who had paid us and were expecting to come,” she said. “It was either that or go bankrupt.”

Amazingly, despite serving hundreds of children, the camp only saw one quarantine of campers, in early summer 2021; a staff member tested positive at the end of summer.

That’s partially due to the precautions: staff vaccination was incentivized. Despite all activities taking place outdoors in small cohorts of 13 or less that did not mix, campers were required to wear masks.

“That’s what we really learned, that no matter what, kids just don’t socially distance,” McEwan said. “It’s almost against human nature.” The pods could be distanced, however. Their schedules were designed to avoid co-mingling during activities. Where the camp used to gather for lunch, now they ate lunch in spots all over the camp.

This summer, decisions are still being finalized as staff wait to see what happens with the latest variant. Masks and pod distancing —and social distancing, as much as possible— will still be practiced. Staff must be vaccinated, but McEwan said she is still making the decision about eligible campers for 2022.

Children create projects at the Smithsonian Adventure Camp. Courtesy: Smithsonian Institute

Into the Unknown
Making the unknown into the known is what Smithsonian Adventure Camps (smithsonianassociates.org/ticketing/adventures/) are all about. The week-long sessions are a deep-dive inside the collections of the 19 museums that make up the institution, a chance to explore their estimated 155 million objects —99 percent of which are not on display to the public.

Campers make daily visits to museums, engaging with internationally renowned subject experts. “Our goal is to share the wonder of the Smithsonian, to help bring it alive through these camps,” said Smithsonian Program Manager Brigitte Blanchère, “and let these kids relish all the things they can possibly discover.”

For 55 years, the Smithsonian has offered a variety of camps pursuing the themes of the Smithsonian. Children are immersed in the Smithsonian; its collections, its ideas and its themes through week-long camps for kids in first through ninth grades, plus the Youth Teaching Assistant program for students 15 and older looking for volunteer hours.

It’s the first time in two years that campers can return to the museum buildings and the National Mall in person. For 2022, the Smithsonian will go hybrid, offering in-person summer camp on the National Mall as well as online camps for those unable to join them.

For summer 2022, session sizes for in-person camps will be limited to 16, down from the usual 20. In previous years, the Smithsonian Camps would usually accept kindergarteners as well. However, with vaccination required for all attendees, they decided to limit programs to cohorts completely eligible.

Lunch outside at Camp Arena Stage. Courtesy: Camp Arena Stage.

The Good Risk
Being creative itself comes with risk. 2022 will be the first in-person session at Camp Arena Stage (arenastage.org) since 2019. The multi-arts day camp accepts children aged eight to 16 years for offerings in theatre, dance, music, visual arts, film-making and writing on the campus at Georgetown Visitation High School (1524 35th St. NW).

Over the past two years, Arena Stage held virtual sessions. It was amazing how well it went, said Anita Maynard-Losh, who is Director of Community Relations for Arena Stage. “But we are all eager to get back to being with people safely and able to collaborate on artwork together.”

Campers select from a wide variety of classes in multiple art forms. Each child is placed in small groups with a leader that functions as “home base.” Camp instructors are adults with experience in education and in the art form, often as professional artists with experience but also the aptitude to nurture new talent that is experimenting.

The risk of COVID transmission can be mitigated and strategies will evolve with information about the virus, she said. Everyone will have to be vaccinated, and masks will be worn indoors. Campers will practice social distancing both while in performances and at outdoor lunchtimes. “This can be challenging, because we’ll have dance classes and the choreography will have to feed into that and abide by those limits,” Maynard-Losh notes. “But as we found multiple times, limits just make us more creative.”

But there’s also artistic risk, and that’s a positive risk that Maynard-Losh says is critical to appreciation and development of the self. In the arts, students are encouraged to put themselves out there, to look for unique and individual responses. “I think what that gives young people as they explore the arts through themselves and themselves through the arts is a sense of their own power, and their own value and the realization that they have something to say, that taking a risk and trying something is to be applauded.”

Camp is important, Maynard-Losh said, not just because of the challenges, but because of different ways it offers children a chance to succeed outside of school, in an environment that is social and supportive. “Being in an emotionally, physically and socially safe environment and to be able to meet people you might not meet otherwise,” Maynard Losh said, “it’s like being able to take a deep breath.”