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Benefits of STEM Related Summer Camp Programs

Stem is a popular buzzword—or, more appropriately, acronym–circulating among educational circles, but it might not be a term one might expect to hear within summer camp circles. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math, four subject areas to which educators are increasingly striving to give students additional exposure, and summer camps are hopping on the bandwagon. According to the American Camp Association, STEM related activities have been among the most popular additions to summer camp programs over the past five years and for good reason. Summer camp provides campers with an alternative venue to learn in ways that are fun. Classrooms are replaced with the outdoors or facilities designed exclusively for individual programs and class size is vastly reduced allowing campers to be able to take a more intricate, hands on approach to exploring STEM areas through related camp activities. According to the New York Daily News, the average class size in New York, an area in which summer camp is particularly popular, is 25 students. In some schools, class sizes exceed 30 students. STEM related camp programs such as Nature, Rocketry and Radio, are often capped at fewer  than a dozen campers per activity period.  STEM related programs increasingly prove to be among the most popular with campers. So why are children flocking to educational niche programs? There are likely several reasons.

First, summer camp provides an informal, laid back setting. There is no homework. There is no syllabus. There are no lectures. There are no deadlines. There are no exams. It’s completely a ‘participate to the level of your comfort’ environment. All campers are encouraged to try camp STEM related programs at least once during the summer, but some find a new interest or passion and return several times. The ‘participate as you wish’ approach also allows campers to choose how to focus their interests. Counselors, often college majors or professionals in the area that they lead, are facilitators. They are there to encourage and assist campers in channeling their efforts into particular aspect of a STEM related activity if they so desire.

Second, the whole point of summer camp is for campers to have fun. So it goes without saying that camp activities are designed to emphasize fun, even those related to subject areas in which students are traditionally less than enthusiastic during the school year. In that regard, educational niche programs at sleepaway camp aren’t intended to compete with or replace the learning that takes place during the school year, but to enhance it.

Third, there is a healthy mixture of activity. Unlike a school setting in which students move through subjects throughout the day typically in a lecture setting, at least half of the day at a traditional summer camp is spent outside where campers take part in sports and water activities. Many camps also incorporate a designated time to rest into their programming day in order to give campers and staff the opportunity to recharge. So those program activities that could be perceived as educational are mixed in with healthy doses of physical activity and relaxation.  This allows campers proper time and space to both process the activities in which they take part throughout the day and to approach future activities with a fresh mind.

Although traditional summer camp STEM related programs are not intended to replace those offered in schools, they may ultimately be equally attributable to inspiring future scientists, technologists, engineers, or mathematicians by encouraging campers to explore these subjects in ways and to a level that they might not get to do during the school year. Some campers may carry a newfound interest in these subject areas home and take on a new enthusiasm at school, making summer camp STEM related programs an invaluable addition to their program lineup.

10 Camp Things for Which We’re Thankful All Year Long

The holidays are upon us and ‘tis the season to ponder those things for which we’re truly thankful. For those of us who are fortunate enough to eat, sleep and breathe camp 24/7, 365 days a year, it’s hard not to make an exclusive “Camp Laurel South” list. After all, camp is just as much a part of our lives in November as it is in June. So we figured we’d share some camp things for which we are thankful all year long.

1.)    Our campers. Each and every one of our campers brings something unique to camp that makes our camp family complete. Getting emails and phone calls about our campers’ accomplishments throughout the winter makes the memories we have of the summer that much more special, and makes us even more excited to see everyone the following year.

2.)    Our camp parents. We feel pretty lucky to have so many parents who as enthusiastic about camp as their children and who keep in touch throughout the winter, providing us with fun and interesting updates.

3.)    Our staff. Finding a staff of talented people who are willing to leave their first homes and make summer camp their second home for several weeks  each summer in order to literally live their jobs day and night is no easy feat. That we’re able to put together a staff each summer who is so vested in creating an amazing summer for all of our campers is truly a blessing.

4.)    Alumni. It’s always a special treat when our alumni share their favorite camp memories and reiterate how great their camp years were. The fact that so many of our alumni are still in touch and/or are active within our community says a lot to us about just how special camp is and motivates us to continue to strive to make camp a lifetime worth of memories.

5.)    A beautiful campus. That first drive into camp each summer is always so special. No matter how many times we’ve been there, that first glance of the bunks/cabins, the dining hall, the fields, the courts and the waterfront each summer is something we anticipate all year long.

6.)    Memories. Memories are what makes each summer different than the last. Even in the fall, we find ourselves asking each other, “Remember when…?” and laughing over our favorite camp moments throughout the year.

7.)    Camp Songs. We often find ourselves turning up the volume whenever a song that proved popular the summer before plays on the radio or humming the alma mater or a favorite dining room tune while we’re busy planning for next summer.

8.)    Camp friends. It’s so nice to have someone with whom we can remember those special moments from previous summers and with whom we can have a hearty laugh about those inside moments that only our camp friends can understand. It’s also nice to be able to re-experience camp through meetups through the winter and makes us even that much more excited about next summer.

9.)    The camp tradition. It sounds pretty obvious, but just the fact that we’re able to carry on such a beloved tradition is a privilege. Summer camps have been around for more than a hundred years and such an iconic part of our culture that movies and television shows have been made about summer camp and books have been written about it. Not to mention, without summer camp, we’re not quite sure what we’d be doing. We certainly can’t imagine doing anything else.

10.) The promise of next summer. We’ve said it a million times, but we start anticipating the next summer as soon as the buses pull away. That ten month wait each year seems like forever, but it proves to be just enough time to plan another summer that promises to be even better than the last. The anticipation drives us all year long as we plan and makes us thankful to be part of camp all year.

While You’re Waiting until June…

So, the summer of 2014 is still a L-O-N-G 8 months away. But here are a few things to keep you warm during the colder months of the year…

1.)    Opening Day. Is there any better feeling than that moment the bus pulls up to camp, you step off and are immediately tackled by a herd of camp friends who have waited all year to see you?

2.)    Campfires. Every camp has its own version. In fact, your camp’s campfire is a big part of what makes it your camp. You’re sure of two things: A) Your camp’s campfire is the best B) S’mores taste best when made at your camp’s campfire.

3.)    Sing-alongs. It’s amazing how much singing silly songs arm-in-arm with your camp friends during the summer makes you feel. Admit it. You find yourself singing to yourself throughout the winter. Your school friends catch you. You want to explain. ‘It’s a camp thing,’ you say. You immediately send a Vine to all of your camp friends of you singing – and doing motions to –your favorite camp songs.

4.)    Arts & Crafts. Seriously, you can tie-dye at home too…really.

5.)    The official camp video, yearbook, or seasonal newsletter. It should be showing up in your mailbox anytime now. Host a party. Reminisce about this past summer. Know that next summer will be here before you know it. Set goals now. Next summer will be epic.

6.)   Camp Shows. Thespians and camp go hand-in-hand. It’s no coincidence that a lot of the biggest names in Hollywood are summer camp alumni.

7.)    Boats. Camp has lots of boats. Ski boats, sailboats, hobie cats, kayaks, canoes…Whichever is your choice, one fact hails true: some of the best moments of the summer happen on the water.

8.)    Trips. Are the movies at home ever as good as it is when you’re enjoying it with your camp friends? What about a roller coasters? Didn’t think so.

9.)    Camp food. Admit it. You live for S Day Breakfasts.

10.)  Cabin mates. When you come home with something exciting to share during the winter, who do you share it with?

Evolving Camp Menus

If you’ve ever been to camp, you know that s’mores are best made over a campfire, and that a knish is the perfect side dish for a cookout or brisket meal. Campers who jump out of bed every morning and race to breakfast, hoping it’s an S Day, as well as those who can’t get enough of the pizza, know that camp food is as much a part of the camp experience as the activities. Like many other camp traditions, the menu constantly evolves to meet the current demands of campers.

One factor heavily influencing camp menus is the growing awareness of the need to develop healthy eating habits early in life. Camps are introducing new and healthier menu alternatives. Items such as Greek yogurt, hummus, guacamole and wraps are finding their way onto camp menus to combine with salad bars, longtime camp dining staples, to give campers and staff more nutritional options. Lite dressings are also appearing alongside regular ones and more fruit and vegetable choices are being offered. But the camp food revolution doesn’t begin and end at the salad bar.

Camps are increasingly using olive oil instead of vegetable oil and are playing around with herb and spice combinations to enhance the taste of the food. This isn’t to say that some traditional camp favorites are disappearing off menus. Grilled cheese, pasta and chicken fingers are all still very much camp fare. Camps are just trying to make healthier versions of them by using fresher ingredients and fewer pre-packaged items.

Campers are very enthusiastic about the recent trends in camp food. Today’s campers have savvy palates and like that favorite foods that have traditionally not been available at camp are finding their way onto menus.

Meal times are important parts of camp each day. They are times for the camp to come together and dine as a family. They are times for singing, cheering and catching up.  Perhaps that why camp food is such a key part of camp.

The Many Role Models of Summer Camp

There aren’t many places children can go to be surrounded by positive role models that provide them the opportunity to develop relationships on multiple levels.  For most kids, adult mentors are limited to parents, coaches and teachers. There’s one place, however, where children are surrounded by mentors on multiple levels 24/7: summer camp.  Most summer camps have very high staff to camper ratios, which means there is never a shortage of grownups from whom campers can seek guidance and leadership.  Of course, everyone knows that role models are important in the lives of children.  But we simply forget to take the time to consider that having different types of leadership examples is equally crucial, until we’re reminded of this by the campers themselves.

A senior camper at one of America’s Finest Summer Camps recently observed there are so many leaders at camp that you never feel like you have no one to go to when the need arises.  This is very true.  There are coaches to help children improve their skills and reach athletic goals.  There are counselors to provide guidance through daily activities.  There are Head Counselors and Campus Leaders to help out with the bigger, more complicated aspects of camp.  And there are Directors who make it their business to make sure everyone has fun and stays safe.  There is also the myriad of other staff who work in camp offices, kitchens and health centers.  Regardless of which role any of these people fulfill, they’re all working at summer camp for one reason: They have opted to dedicate their summers to making a positive impact on the lives of children, and the campers’ best interests are their first priority.  There aren’t many institutions that can make a similar claim.

As leaders and mentors, camp staff bring a passion to their jobs that anyone who makes a decision to dedicate themselves 24/7 to a job must have in order to be successful.  They voluntarily give up sleep, time with family and free-time in order to be a part of summer camp, and their dedication shows through their interaction with campers.  The relationship is symbiotic.  Campers understand that staff find as much value in the summer camp experience as they do, which develops into a mutual confidence and trust.

Social learning is the psychological concept that places value on the necessity of good role models in the lives of children, which is perhaps why camp is an ideal place for campers to get the most out of being surrounded by many prospective mentors.  Summer camp is somewhat of a microcosm of an ideal society.  It’s a self-contained arena in which people live alongside one another in an environment that is most harmonious when everyone supports the successes of those around them. The absence of everyday competitiveness gives campers the opportunity to take full advantage of the encouragement that comes from everyone around them, including leaders.

Use Social Media to Explore Summer Camps during the Off Season

We can hear the echoes of parents the world over now…’Start thinking about what?  Now?  We just finished filling out school paperwork!’  True.  Next summer is ten months away.  Trust us; we keep a countdown.  Newsflash:  summer camp enrollment is right around the corner.  In fact, for many camps, new camper enrollment is already underway.

Residential camp attendance is on the rise.  In fact, the American Camp Association reports a 21% increase in sleepaway camp enrollment over the past decade.  One would think this has summer camp directors all over the country jumping for joy—and it does.  But there is also a downside to the rising interest in summer camp.  As much as camp directors would like to offer an infinite amount of campers a place at their camps, facilities and programs have capacities, which means there are limitations to how many campers each camp can accommodate and still provide the best possible experience.  The solution for some camps is a waiting list.  Other camps simply stop taking inquiries after their open spots are filled.  For a lot of very popular premiere level summer camps, it means longer waiting lists for an already existing shortage of openings.  In other words, admission is competitive, and if you wait until the weather starts warming up to start thinking about registering for summer camp, you might find yourself in the cold.

Ideally, if you’re hoping to have a first time camper next summer, you’ve already short listed several camps that you think are the best fit for your child.  Maybe you’ve been avoiding making the final call because you prefer one camp while your child prefers another.  Maybe you’re just not sure your child is ready for sleepaway camp.  Maybe you still have a few questions before making it official.  Whatever the reason, now’s the time to pull out that short list and start narrowing down the candidates. Even if your child is looking forward to another summer of day camp, now is still a good time to start browsing the web and assembling a list of prospective camps.  Thanks to social media, you can follow camps throughout the year and get a feel for the camp’s community.  After all, you and your children are going to be a part of whichever one you choose for the next several years.  So it’s important to pick the one of which you think your family could feel most a part.

While reviewing social media outlets and the camp’s website, ask yourself:  How invested does the camp seem in its programs, facilities and families?  Who is the staff and how are they selected?  What is the camp’s policy about communication between campers and staff during the winter months?  These are very important questions that delve beyond the sparkling lake and impeccably manicured grounds shown on websites or camp videos.

Summer camps are more than the sum total of their promotional videos as well.  Use the opportunity to let social media help you get a better picture. You can easily determine parents’ as well campers’ attitudes toward a camp.  A strong online community that shows enthusiasm for camp throughout the year is a sure sign of happy camp families.

Once you start to consider the details of what will make you feel comfortable about sending your child off for several weeks or most of the summer, the easier it is to select a camp, and  the less likely you are to find yourselves on a waiting list because you quite literally missed your window of opportunity.

Coming Home (Parentheses)

Parents: prepare for your pantries to be emptied, your laundry rooms to be full, and your television remote controls to become affixed to your children’s hands.  The campers are coming home, and they’re riding a camp high.  They have a lot to tell you.  Get ready to hear a lot of stories about camp (over and over), be let in on a lot of inside jokes that you probably won’t understand because “it’s a camp thing” (laugh anyway), learn everything you could ever want to know and more about new friends (excellent excuse to look at camp photos again with your children), and listen to camp songs and cheers (they’ll likely want to teach them to you too).  Sometime around mid-September, you’ll probably start wagering with your spouse about whether your children will stop talking about this summer before next summer starts (not likely).

You’ll try to start conversations about things other than camp (you’re pretty sure you’ve seen an episode or two of Pretty Little Liars), but inevitably the conversation will come back to camp. (Remember the episode when Spencer realized that she’d been to summer camp with Hannah’s stepsister?  And speaking of camp…) But just when you’re starting to feel camped out, something will happen this fall that will make you remember why you love hearing about camp.  Registration for next summer will open.   You’ll remember that this is the point every year when still hearing about this summer even though it’s time to start thinking about next summer transforms into music to your ears, and the lyrics are your children’s way of telling you that they love camp (even though by that time they’ve said they love camp about a million times).  You’ll think about everything they’ve shared with you about camp, try (and fail) to count how many times they’ve used the word “camp” since they’ve returned home, and maybe even admire some of their arts & craft handiwork as you pat yourself on the back for deciding to give your children the gift of summer camp (then you’ll check the camp website for the Visiting Day 2014 date).

End of Summer

It’s hard to believe another summer at Camp Laurel South has nearly come and gone, but here we are. In just a few weeks, the camp season of 2013 will be a memory and school buses will once again be a regular sight around many neighborhoods. There is always a feeling around camp at the end of the summer that someone pushed a fast-forward button. Right about now, campers and staff begin reflecting on where the time has gone. But something happens in that reflection; they remember EVERYTHING they did over the summer.

Moments at camp happen so fast. The days are packed full of adventure. When campers and staff begin to inventory their summer memories, they’re often in awe of the amount of things they achieved in such a short period of time. In retrospect, the summer seems endless. There were the big adventures; trips, all camp events, campfires, shows, performances, leagues, Spirit Days. There were the daily activities; swimming, playing sports, arts and crafts, theater, nature, fishing, etc. Those are the memories that seem to make the summer go on forever. Then there were the moments and events that stick out as really special; being with friends, creating that special craft project, riding a zipline for the first time, hitting a bullseye in archery, making a foul shot in basketball, getting up on waterskis. Those are the memories that freeze time. They’re the ones that make the summer of 2013, “Summer 2013” in hearts and memories. Those are the moments behind teary goodbyes, repeated camp stories, and the countdown for next year. Memories are a great dessert after a filling summer, and like every great dessert, everyone wants more.

A Whole New World

At one of America’s Finest Summer Camps, a first year camper, upon stepping off the bus on arrival day for the first time, immediately exclaimed, “I’ve been waiting for this moment my whole life!” The awe of that young camper at that moment was very reminiscent of the scene in The Little Mermaid in which the young mermaid Ariel finds herself on land for the first time and, with her new legs, begins experiencing a whole new world.  She is mesmerized by the smallest human things—flatware, trinkets, and mirrors.  For young campers who finally get to come to camp for the first time after sometimes waiting their “whole lives,” there is a sense of wonder in being in a new place with different people and things.  They are surrounded by literally dozens of activities that perhaps they’ve never tried and, sometimes, of which they’ve never even heard.  Like Ariel the mermaid, they sometimes hear about the world of camp from older siblings for years before finally getting to experience themselves.  With that newness and the adventure of being in a place one has dreamed for a very long time comes a sense of openness and a willingness to try new things.  New campers often want to try EVERYTHING!

And why not?  What better way to discover which things one loves than at summer camp, an environment in which many new campers are away from their parents for the first time?  There is no sideline pressure from over-zealous parents and coaches at camp sports.  There are no teachers to mark right from wrong.  Instead, new campers are surrounded by supportive counselors, staff, and friends, many of whom are also first time campers and that natural empathy creates an atmosphere conducive to bonding and the formation of lasting friendships.

As campers maneuver the new world of camp, they share like experiences.  Whether big, like taking on a high ropes course for the first time as a cabin or small, like learning how to bait a fishing hook, learning what camp is all about becomes the foundation for the transformation of the new world of first time campers into the special world of camp. Because the menu of camp activities constantly expands and evolves, there is a perpetual newness to the summer camp experience.  Even though, for older campers, camp becomes a special place to which campers get to journey once a year, that essence of being a whole new world lives on summer after summer and is what drives campers to spend their winters counting down for that annual journey to experience it.

Camp through the Eyes of a Program Director

I’m the camp’s Program Director.  I have a very unique job at camp as the person responsible for overseeing the daily scheduling of the camp’s daily activities.  Even though it’s not one of the traditional camp jobs that comes to mind when people imagine working at a summer camp, it’s a crucial one.  I like that it’s a perfect combination of behind the scenes with hands on.

One of the things I love most about my job is that I get the opportunity to get to know most of the campers and staff through daily interaction.  I’m the person they come to with requests for their programs.  I enjoy speaking with them about the things that are working in their activity areas and hear feedback about things that I might improve.

On those rare occurrences when the sun refuses to cooperate with the camp schedule, I get to demonstrate my creative talents by figuring how we can keep the fun going in all of our indoor facilities.  I also enjoy getting out on campus every now to see for myself how the schedule plays out in real time.  It’s a great time for me to take notes for the next schedule.

In the evenings, before I begin working on the next day’s schedule, I often participate in special events.  Sometimes I judge activities.  Sometimes I lead them.  Other times, I host them or just keep score.  The real reward of my job is when I overhear campers telling their counselors that they just had the best day ever as they’re heading off to bed in the evenings.  It’s a great way to begin another day because just as everyone winds down their day at camp, I head back to my office to begin working on the next day’s schedule, ready to create another “funnest day ever!” for our campers.  If you think working in camp programming sounds like a fun job, apply at one of America’s Finest Summer Camps today!

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