Learn a Skill This Summer

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With many summer camps closing their registration period only a few months into the year, you might be feeling the pressure to narrow down camp choices, but too many options can make it difficult.

What if your child doesn’t find their niche?

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Day and overnight camps are dedicated to offering a large variety of activities in order to appeal to every child. But the broad scope of these programs make it so that if kids do find an activity they really like, they may not have as much time to spend on it.

This is where specialized camps come in. Camps focused on one skill or area of interest can provide more detailed and all-encompassing instruction in their given fields.

“Water activities at more general summer camps are just one small part of their overall programming,” explains Philip DePalo, owner of Eastern Watersports, whose Baltimore-area summer camp program is a one-stop shop for waterfront-based activities like sailing, kayaking and sports including water volleyball and paddle board hockey.

“Here, you’re basically on the water and in your life jacket from the moment you arrive,” he says.

Camps like these give kids the chance to discover new talents or hone strengths they’ve acquired from sports or extracurricular activities during the year — and summer is the ideal time for that, since your child’s energy isn’t split between school and other responsibilities.

Here are some ways kids can benefit from a more focused experience:

Quality Instructors
While all camps can be expected to follow standards for training and safety in sports, at a skill-focused camp, the background of quality instructors might be more extensive.

“We live, eat and breathe gymnastics,” says Michelle Carhart, owner of Motion Education, which creates programs for Dynamite Gymnastics Center gyms, of camp staff.

“With beginners, you want to make sure they’re learning the right way so they want to move on, learn more and eventually compete. They’re not going to develop bad practicing habits, and if people at gyms or general camps don’t have a proper understanding of the mechanics of gymnastics, it can hurt them later if they want to do it seriously,” she says.

Dynamite Gymnastics Center, which has four locations throughout Maryland, including one in North Bethesda/Rockville, offers weeklong summer camp programs ideal for children interested in learning how to fly through the air.

Learning to kayak at Eastern Watersports’ summer camp. (Courtesy of Eastern Watersports)

Similarly, many of the counselors at Eastern Watersports’ camp are trained sailing instructors who are members of the American Sailing Association, giving them a great deal of expertise and experience to impart to their campers.

Campers at Pennsylvania-based Ashford Farm are paired with another camper at the start of the week, and given a horse or pony to share. They take turns learning to ride while the other attends lectures on equine care and safety, or participates in some of the other activities offered by the camp such as art, yoga and swimming.

“The focus is on safety so [campers] don’t get hurt and learn to treat the horses with respect so that the horses will treat them with respect,” explains Carolina Canavan, who opened Ashford Farm with her husband Bill in 1972. The camp’s counselors are professional riding instructors at the farm.

The horse riding school in Lafayette Hill has offered a day camp program for many years. Campers can spend up to eight weeks learning all about horses, from how to properly groom and care for them to how to ride one.

Inclusion and Flexibility
Specialty camps can also be a great opportunity for kids to get their feet wet before investing in a sport or activity — especially for those who might not otherwise have the chance.

“For such a dense waterfront population [in Baltimore], there isn’t a lot of opportunity to get out on the water,” notes DePalo. “Traditionally, it seems to be more for affluent people, and that’s definitely not our goal. We’re excited to get the actual citizens of Baltimore County out on the water, so we’re pretty excited about camp.”

And while it might seem that signing up for a skill-centric camp would mean an intensive experience for kids, camps are flexible to beginners—or even those who just have an interest in learning more.

“It’s great for kids with an interest in horses, and who want to be around horses,” says Canavan of Ashford Farm. “A lot of our campers go on to take care of or even own horses.”

Dynamite has the variety for those who want to explore. Campers at one location might be able to learn traditional gymnastics, while some of the others offer programs like parkour, ‘Ninja Warrior’-esque agility training and cheer.

“We get a lot of people who are afraid to come to gymnastics camp because they’ve never done gymnastics before,” says Carhart. “But we work with all levels. The cool thing about gymnastics is that it’s progressive, and you can try new things based on your experience level.”

Carhart adds that a benefit of having a camp largely focused on gymnastics is that campers are able to track their improvement throughout the week.

“[Other camps] do tend to have their achievements be more unit-based, like winning games, as opposed to getting better at something,” she notes. “Gymnastics gives kids more experience with goals. By the end of the week, they’ll have accomplished something specific, like learning to do a flip or a cartwheel … you can actually learn specific skills and walk away with that at the end of the week.”

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Carhart also stresses the importance of allowing campers to partake in other activities, such as arts and crafts, so that they don’t get burnt out or discouraged.

Learning Beyond the Skill
The knowledge that campers walk away with after camp might go beyond the new skillset itself, too.

At Eastern Watersports, some of the other activities offered at its camp include adventure tours that let campers experience the nature of the Chesapeake Bay and the surrounding area. Eastern Watersports has partnered with Marshy Point Nature Center and Baltimore City Parks and Recreation to expand the reach of its boating expeditions.

Canavan says that working with horses can also improve campers’ social skills.

“We had a camper last summer who started riding in the spring, and she was 12. When she came here for lessons, she would not talk, and her mother had to come in and talk for her. In the first week of camp, by Thursday, she was talking to everyone in camp because [horseback riding] just brings them out of their shell.

[Working with horses] gives children a sense of responsibility and someone they can tell all of their problems to,” she says.

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