We are headed into possibly the weirdest summer ever.
We are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. School ended early. Kids are bored. Parents are about to lose their ever-loving minds. And to top it all off, summer camp is probably canceled, too, or at least it’s going to look very, very different.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated considerations for camps amid the COVID-10 outbreak, including a “decision tree” for directors to use to determine whether their programs should go on. The American Camp Association followed up with a field guide. Camps must also follow regulations set by state and local authorities.
USA TODAY spoke with three camp counselors across the nation about the status of their summer camps and how parents can bring those experiences home if camps are canceled. Of their programs, one was going completely virtual; one was still figuring out what to do; and one was doing a mix of online and on-site programming with new restrictions like temperature checks, masks on staff, limited group sizes and enhanced sanitization.
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But they all agreed on one thing: Summer camps provide critical development opportunities for kids, different than school, with different end goals.
“Camp is about the connection. It’s about exploring,” says Penn Henthorn, director of programs and camps for Camp Fire Heart of Oklahoma.
“Our outcomes are based on critical skills you need to work with other people: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity. We just get to let kids have fun and those things are part of the process.”
While social distancing is making all of those things a challenge, there are ways to keep the important experiences of camp going while families stay home.
Here are four ideas from the camp counselors themselves.
1. Take it outside
Camp is outdoors, so whatever it is that you are doing, “take it outside,” says Sarah Kotko, a longtime teacher who is serving as a camp director this summer in West Sacramento, California.
“Doing an art project? Go outside. Doing a science activity? Go outside. I tell parents it’s OK to use electronics, but can they take that tablet outside under a tree? It changes the feeling of whatever you’re doing,” she says.
Being outside is also critical for children’s health and well-being, says Nikki Murray, day camp and youth and teen director at the YMCA of Youngstown in Ohio.
“Lack of physical activity and contact with the sun is a huge, huge factor in kids feeling lethargic or getting depressed,” she says, urging families to get outside as much as possible.
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2. Make new friends, but keep the distance
You know the old camp song: “Make new friends, but keep the old.” Those “outside relationships” are a huge part of the camp experience and allow for self-discovery, Henthorn says.
While it’s pretty hard to meet new people from the confines of your home, there are ways to socialize virtually. Camp Fire Heart and YMCA of Youngstown are both offering “camp in a box” programs, which allow small groups to meet up online and work on activities as a team.
Aside from virtual programs, Kotko just recommends getting back to writing letters, like kids would do from their bunks at night.
“Write a letter to someone in your family and mail it with your kid. Have them write letters to build a friendship, even with the kid down the street. They can write letters to each other and actually mail them,” Kotko says.
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3. Keep groups small, even on Zoom
If you do decide to use technology to connect your kids with their friends, Murray recommends “small group formatting.”
She has noticed many caregivers trying to organize virtual calls with their kids’ entire classrooms, which can become “cumbersome” and not allow for a lot of interaction. She encourages groups of only two or three kids and 10 at the maximum.
“You want your kids to have an opportunity to get to know each other, connect with someone new and have a chance to talk to them and ask them questions and be silly with them,” she says.
4. Use what you already have
Finally, while there are plenty of options for virtual camp programs online, you may already have what you need in your cabinets or junk drawer.
“Make it about it being fun and let them explore. At camp, that’s what we do, we give them things and say, ‘OK, go be free and create your own,’ ” Kotko says.
Here are some easy ideas:
- Mix plain old markers with water and watch them turn into watercolors for painting.
- Use baking soda and vinegar to build a volcano in the mud outside.
- Set up a tent in your living room and make s’mores in your oven.
- Have a “color of the rainbow” week: Monday is red, Tuesday is orange and so on. For each day, wear that color and eat something that color.
- Have a pajama week and make pillow forts together.
- Make a scavenger hunt with a list of things you know you have in your house, like “something yellow that you can write with.”
- Work on math using Skittles.
- Give them a storyline (say, they’re pirates) and have them paint a picture of whatever they imagine.
- Just sit in the backyard and look around. Talk about what you see.
5. ‘Just keep them busy’
At the end of the day, Murray’s biggest advice is for parents and caregivers to stop stressing out over the content of what the kids are doing, but to just keep them busy.
“The simplest things, like simple arts and crafts projects and going on walks, are super-beneficial to their development,” she says.