Will online summer camp work? A virtual path worth a try during coronavirus pandemic

For millions of kids and teens in America each year, summer camp is a cherished part of childhood. It’s often a young person’s first foray with freedom. Or maybe it’s a chance to run wild in the great outdoors, playing all day and splurging on s’mores around the campfire all night.

Whatever the case, it’s a moment in the short window of being a kid, when everyone involved can make lifelong friends and lasting memories – and parents can get a little break, too. 

But this year? 

“It’s another thing that COVID-19 has taken away,” parenting expert Jennifer Kelman says.

Kelman, a licensed clinical social worker and mom of 10-year-old twins, says she gets this question dozens of times every day, while she and many other families try to figure out what to do with summer camp plans. “With shelter-in-place orders, this pandemic has taken the connection away for children and adults,” she says.

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Bria, 7, and Brixton Bell, 5, explore a Trackers Spark class. Outdoor summer camps may not be an option during the pandemic, but Trackers co-founder Tony Deis says, "We want to keep kids active and connected."
Bria, 7, and Brixton Bell, 5, explore a Trackers Spark class. Outdoor summer camps may not be an option during the pandemic, but Trackers co-founder Tony Deis says, “We want to keep kids active and connected.”

State of the summer camp

The USA has more than 14,000 year-round and summer camps serving about 20 million campers annually, along with more than a million camp workers, in an $18 billion industry, according to the American Camp Association. Now, nearly everyone involved is stuck at home trying to figure out what’s going to happen next during the pandemic. Parents are desperate for answers, while camps are scrambling to come up with a plan to avoid complete shutdown or, worse yet, the collapse of their entire business. 

Can technology save the day?

At least 22 programs across the country have announced they will hold some form of “online camp” this summer. Just like the internet turned office workers into remote employees overnight, “online camps” hope to bring activities and fun to kids while keeping them safe from the health crisis. 

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Pivoting to online courses is a big transition for kids who expected to spend weeks socializing and making new friends. Many parents wonder if more screen time is good for kids at this point. 

“My kids are changing before my eyes because of how much screen time they’re getting between online learning and just trying to physically connect with her friends,” says Leslie Sindelar, an attorney and working mom of two in Sacramento, California. “So I’m feeling very anti-tech right now. If our traditional summer camps aren’t available, do I concede and sign them up for online camp anyway?”

Avid4 Adventure online summer camps offer remote interaction for kids.
Avid4 Adventure online summer camps offer remote interaction for kids.

Virtual summer camps

Trackers Earth, an Oregon-based outdoor-adventure camp company, was among the first to take its after-school and summer classes online last month, shortly after shelter-in-place orders left many parents – and kids – desperate for options. It named the virtual options Trackers Spark. “Our online camps are live, small-group interactive webinars,” Trackers co-founder Tony Deis says. “It’s usually a ratio of one teacher or guide for a maximum of eight students, and they (the instructors) bring one-of-a-kind skills and expertise to every single day, just like they do in real life.” 

Trackers Spark courses are tailored to kids ages 4 to 14, and they offer just about every area of interest you could think of, from outdoor safety and survival to arts and crafts, even role-playing and lighthearted “secret agent” training. Most online camps are 30 minutes to an hour in length and run $5 to $25 for a single class, with discounts if parents buy them as a series. 

Deis says the idea isn’t to distract kids with a screen but rather to use a computer or tablet as a window to the same kind of camp instructor they would follow at an in-person camp. “We want to keep kids active and connected. What each camper does varies based on the topic, but every program is more than passive screen time,” Deis says.

All of the Trackers Spark courses are offered in Pacific time zones via private, secure Zoom video calls. Trackers is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, but Deis says it’s had campers join from New York, Maryland and even Sweden to take the live classes.

“He shooed me out of the room before it started,” parent Terrie Jarrell says of her 12-year-old son’s experience in the “Realms: Elite Guard Campaign” class. “He’s not forthcoming with details, other than his party fought ogres for breakfast food.” 

“These classes have been completely transformative. Particularly while we’re sheltering in place,” says Oakland mom Saray McCarthy, whose 7-year-old son is partial to the “Evil Secret Agent Academy: World Domination” class. “He LOVED the idea of being an evil spy and is really into being the double agent. Trackers creates such an immersive experience, and he just loves that.”

Not all virtual camps are interactive

Just like every in-person summer camp is different, each online camp offers its own take on what kids and teens might want. Deis says most online camps break down into three categories: 

  1. Videos kids watch. These are often subscriptions. 

  2. Webinars with large groups, where the interaction is something 20+ kids can do together.

  3. Small-group, interactive webinar-type classes.

Deis says his company chose to go the No. 3 route because “it lets kids be social, connecting with each other and getting personal interaction with the teacher.”

Happy Camper Live founder Allison Miller says, “We can’t bring every kid to summer camp, but we can bring summer camp to them.”
Happy Camper Live founder Allison Miller says, “We can’t bring every kid to summer camp, but we can bring summer camp to them.”

Happy Camper Live is packed with web series, live programs and a virtual tour of its Camp Starlight sleepaway camp in Pennsylvania, no VR headset required. The video activities are taught by real camp counselors, but none of them is interactive – on purpose. 

“What we offer is not a Zoom room,” says Happy Camper Live founder Allison Miller. “That might work well for some of the other camps, but we already know that parents are going to be the real camp counselors this summer, and we’ve created a critical resource for both kids and parents. The whole concept is for kids to get inspired and go out and do something new.”

Happy Camper’s videos are typically two to six minutes long and cover a wide range of activities such as magic tricks, sports drills, arts and crafts projects, performing arts and outdoor skills. Each day, there are a handful of free videos, and a yearly subscription costs about $12. 

Miller says the goal is to offer kids and parents dozens of different options for fun things they can learn, master and do on their own – or with each other. “We can’t bring every kid to summer camp, but we can bring summer camp to them,” she says.

Parental supervision required

Typically, one of the best things about sending the kiddos off to camp is that the adults get a bit of breathing room. That’s missing from online camps, and most of them suggest a parent or guardian be on hand – or at least nearby – for additional support. 

Camp owners reiterate that online courses are not a replacement for parenting. In other words, don’t stick kids in front of a screen and zone out for the next hour or two. Trackers Spark tells parents before they register for any course that the classes need some level of guardian supervision, rated as follows: 

  • Phone On: Guardians must be in the same house with a phone on for notifications. Example: martial arts.

  • Eyes On: Guardians must be close enough to observe and ready to help. Example: cooking.

  • Hands On: Guardians must be with the camper to offer immediate help and co-guidance. Example: woodcarving.

Will online summer camp work?

It already is – as a “recess,” or maybe even “reset” – of sorts for parents running out of ideas to keep kids entertained, active and from fraying their last nerve.

Classes are fun, informative, engaging and an obvious relief for kids and parents alike. Last week, I learned how to walk in the woods without making any noise. I loved that, and so did the half-dozen 7- to 10-year-olds learning “tracking skills” with me. Kids seemed so excited just to have other youngsters to talk with, it really drove home the need for connection with people their own age.

As a parent, I do have one word of warning: Make sure each instructor is properly vetted, as you would with anyone you trust to care for your child, virtual or otherwise. Most in-person camps require counselors to get background checked and fingerprinted, and they must bring specific skills and experience to the environment. Make sure online camps offer the same. Then – take a deep breath – and get ready to learn some fun stuff. 

All of these online options offer more than any of us could possibly dream up ourselves, so why not use what’s available at our fingertips to help us all get through these trying times? To echo what one of the camp owners said, “when kids are exposed to a lot of different things, it helps them find their passion,” even if that passion this year is right in our own backyards.

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist. Email her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus effect: Summer camps can take virtual path to exploration

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