Family Camp Has Its Days in the Sun

By Gregory Keer

When my wife first dragged us all to family camp a few years ago, I had mixed emotions. I recalled my own overnight camp experiences of painful shyness around other kids, fear of mountain lions that might randomly attack me, and general cluelessness about campfire song lyrics.

Four years later, I'm itching to get back for our fourth annual week at the UCLA Bruin Woods family camp up in Lake Arrowhead, Calif. Maybe it has to do with the way my sons pal around with their fellow campers; hike, fish and swim fearlessly; and scream out silly songs so the whole facility can hear them. And maybe it has to do with the grown-up activities of inner-tube water polo, high-wire walking on the ropes course, and after-dark games of "mafia."

Family Camp

Apparently, my love of the family-camp experience is not unique. This kind of vacation has grown increasingly popular as adults learn that camper bonding, lanyard-making and lakeside overnights are not just for kids anymore. The American Camp Association (ACA), which accredits camps according to certain quality standards and represents about a quarter of the industry, notes an increase in family camps of 24 percent over the last four years. This means there are plenty of options, in every part of the country.

Like a rustic version of an all-inclusive Caribbean vacation, family camps' appeal seems to stem from Americans' desire to stay domestic and, in the case of some camps, save some money. These camps offer numerous features, including groups for the kids, prepared meals, comfortable accommodations and enough sports, arts-and-crafts and outdoor recreation to make adults feel young again.

Reasons to Go to Family Camp

Aside from having all the play opportunities, family camp is a unique chance for parents and children to deepen their bonds. In an environment far from the hustle and responsibilities of home and work, families can focus on each other.

They can try new things together, such as waterskiing and archery. At the camp my family attends, we've gone on counselor-led parent-child overnights under the stars and giggled through campwide picnic games. Though I haven't gotten the guts to do it yet, lots of parents perform with their kids in a talent show as well.

At many camps, kids go off to be with camp groups during much of the day, but return to sit with their parents at mealtimes. This presents a healthy growth opportunity for kids. And, as American Camp Association CEO Peg Smith notes, "family camp helps a parent introduce the camp experience to younger children who might not have yet experienced parental separation." Young kids can build autonomy without the fear of being far from home since Mom and Dad can stay close - but not too close - by.

Scott Sober, a single dad who goes to Cheley Colorado Camps, loves the chance to spend "downtime" with his son and two daughters. "With so many other vacations, you're running from place to place," he says. "Here, we have a lot of activities, but we're staying in one location and we're free from the chores we usually have to do." In the unique sleeping quarters at Cheley - covered wagons with "surprisingly comfortable" mattresses - Sober appreciates the coziness that allows him to talk to his kids and even listen in on conversations he might not normally hear.

Family camps offer unique opportunities for families to create memories together, not just between parents and children, but with other families who share the camp experience with them.

Families create memories together, not just between parents and children, but with other families who share the experience with them. Grown-ups spend time with the same group, eating, going on morning walks, making pottery, and more. Often, the connections between adults result in the children getting closer and vice versa. Essentially, the whole camp becomes an extended family for the time you spend together.

Tom Holsapple, conference director for family and group programs at Frost Valley YMCA in New York, explains that there is a great pull for families to "reunite with old friends" who return to the camp year after year. Friendship, along with the activities and natural setting, is what lofts Frost Valley up to an 85 percent retention rate with guests, Holsapple says. "Some families have been coming to our family camp for three generations."

This kind of retention results in long waiting lists for some family camps, causing a few to cap off returnees in order to give new families the opportunity to attend the programs.

An Old-Fashioned, Stress-Free Atmosphere

Like many other programs around the country, there is a village-like mentality that takes over the families we commune with at Bruin Woods. Because we're all more relaxed, people are truly friendly and talkative. We look out for each other's children to such an extent that my wife and I have "misplaced" our kids during after-meal free time, but never really worried about them getting into danger. This also breeds a sense of independence for the kids, who feel good that we trust them to check back in with us at the cabin or any one of a number of landmark spots around a camp they know like the back of their hands.

A warm, friendly environment is what Rick and Randi Gitelson wanted when they took their son and daughter to Skylake Yosemite Camp, just outside of California's Yosemite National Forest.

"We loved all the lake activities like waterskiing and tubing," Rick says. But what they really enjoyed were such features as the "attitude adjustment hour," which allowed families to hang out and socialize in the afternoons. "The camp has a wonderful community atmosphere."

Then there are the camp counselors. These counselors need to impress both the kids and the adults, so they are often skilled in various activities, and well-trained to keep everyone having a great time. Frequently, the counselors are college students and other adults of a similar age who take their responsibilities seriously.

Andrew Townsend, director of Kennolyn Camps near San Jose, Calif., says that because its family camp is held on the Labor Day weekend that closes summer, "it tends to be our long-serving staff that get to stay. The families that return every year love to see old staff (Miklos from Hungary, Pete from England) as well as the newer faces among the counselors."

At night, family camps often have lots to do for teens and, especially, for adults. In many cases, grown-ups can avail themselves of babysitters that the camp can help arrange (sometimes the same counselors who take care of your kids during the day or young adults who live in the area). Then, Mom and Dad can do everything from karaoke singing to mock casino games.

Camp Never Gets Old, Even Though the Kids Do

With family camp, my wife and I love the idea that our children have a consistent place to anchor their summer memories, a setting that challenges them to grow independent in addition to having the times of their lives. We get to share in their fun as much as we can and also watch them go off on their own. And it doesn't hurt that I get to keep trying to conquer my own childhood failures at horseback riding and singing.

Costs and Amenities of Family Camps

Family camps range widely in cost, depending on the level of luxury, food standards and quality of the facilities. It also depends on the number and ages of the kids you bring (children under 2 are often free). Privately owned camps tend to be more expensive, but religious camps can be quite affordable. On average, a family of four can expect to pay as little as $700 or as much as $4,000.

The cost usually includes accommodations, activities and meals. While most camps are all-inclusive, many offer extra-cost options, such as paragliding and massages.

For sustenance, many programs stick to basic fare, though there's plenty of it, while others serve resort-quality grub. An emphasis on the kids makes peanut butter and jelly and burgers common menu items. Often, meals are served in communal dining halls.

Because this is family camp, the surroundings are usually mountainous and/or wooded. Lake- and river-side locations are particularly common. Regarding sleeping quarters, these, too, go from rustic cabins with no electrical power to condo-style rooms befitting a two- to four-star hotel.

One other fact to keep in mind is that many family programs are run only one or two weeks per year at a residential camp facility. Quite a few camps offer long-weekend programs, rather than full-week experiences. And most of the places with family camps operate kid programs for the entire summer.

Camp capacity goes the gamut from 15 to 80 families, depending on the size of the facility.

Gregory Keer is a teacher, writer, father of three boys and family camp veteran.

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