Embrace Your Niche: The Rise of Specialty Camps

Girls Who Code shows campers pathways to success in STEM fields. (Courtesy of Girls Who Code)

Going to camp is an integral part of the summer for many kids. Not just many, millions. More than 7 million, in fact, and that number is growing, according to the American Camp Association.

But summer sleepaway camp may not appeal to all kids — or kids may want to concentrate on one activity instead of trying out an array of them. Enter the specialty camp.

A specialty camp is one where the focus is on a particular skill, activity or interest — think science camp, music camp, sports camp or even circus arts camp.

“The trend is toward specialty camps,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association and a former Jewish camp director. “And in the Jewish world, you’re definitely seeing this too.”

The Union of Reform Judaism’s youth arm is an example of this. In recent years, they’ve launched four 6 Points specialty camps: sports, sci-tech, sci-tech Israel and creative arts. The response so far has been positive, said Amanda Battaglia, a youth administrator for URJ.

“I think there was an area to be served for campers who didn’t fit the normal camper mold,” she said.

The camps focus on activities in one area, but they all have a strong foundation in Judaism and the Jewish community, said Rachael Brill, associate director of camping for URJ.

“The reason we got into this was because it was a different entry point to Judaism,” she said.

About 70 percent of the kids coming to specialty camps have never had an immersive Jewish experience, Brill added, and these camps are another way to provide that while also providing Jewish context — from a full Shabbat experience to rabbis joining in the activities.

Camp experience raises kids’ confidence and teaches them social and emotional skills they’ll need in life, Rosenberg said.

“Camp is a place where you learn to work with a diverse group of people,” he said. “[It’s a place that] teaches them to be human.”

The ACA accredits several thousand camps. Of those, about one-third focus on STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or have STEM programming. It’s one of the fastest-growing areas in camps, Rosenberg said.

Deborah Singer, general manager of Girls Who Code Campus, a new two-week summer program, agrees. Girls Who Code, a national umbrella organization that has after- school clubs around the country, is growing quickly, she said. They were turning away thousands of girls for their immersive summer program, Singer said, and also hearing that the program, at 7 weeks, was too long for some girls’ summer plans.

So, they created Campus, which partners with schools and universities in six cities (to start) with a series of two week camps over the summer.

“For parents, I think it’s that they see the economic opportunity [of STEM careers],” Singer said of the draw of Girls Who Code summer programs. “For girls, it’s about using technology to solve a problem they care about.”

Girls Who Code wants to do more than just teach girls to code, Singer said. The goal is also to show them pathways to success in STEM fields, where women are still a minority, and give them the confidence to pursue those opportunities.

The Campus program includes one Jewish day school — the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. Rosenberg said this type of partnership between schools and camps benefits everyone and predicted it would only grow in the future.

“It’s an exciting time to be in camping,” he said. “I believe schools and camps need to partner together more than ever before to meet these future needs.”

Rosenberg, Singer and Battaglia all agreed that specialty camps have the opportunity to reach more kids, not only because of the range of specialty areas offered, but also because they’re often short enough to fit into a student’s summer that often includes family vacation or more than one camp.

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