The Science of Summer Camp

The Science of Summer Camp

From soccer to Shakespeare: Find your child’s summer bliss.

My children’s summer camp wishes have ranged from “baseball all day” to “a farm with goats and chickens.” And here in the East Bay, where dozens of camps offer boating, soccer, cooking, science, theater, computer and more, both of my kids’ wishes, and many others, can come true.

When you think summer, perhaps you imagine your child swimming in a lake, sculpting with clay or even practicing lines of Shakespeare. Some camps offer the chance to dabble in sports, crafts and music, while others focus on developing one new skill, like hip-hop dance or building robots. Camp days can feel relaxed and expansive, or packed with activities. How should parents choose what’s best for their child and for the whole family? As deadlines for camp sign-up approach, here’s some advice from parents and professionals to ease your search for summertime fun.

The Nitty Gritty

First things first: start with what you need. When El Cerrito mom Virginia Duplessis went from being self-employed to working 9 to 5, she had to reconsider camp priorities. “I started out concerned with creating variety and a well-rounded experience,” she says, “but then had to add in practical considerations like before- and after-care and flexibility.” Facing longer and more rigid work hours, Duplessis came to appreciate the many extended-day options available at local city camps. Your schedule may demand 12 weeks of all-day camp (full days are usually 9 to 3 with the option of extending the day to 8 to 6). Or, you may be able to choose shorter programs scattered throughout the summer. There are full-day and half-day camps, and camp sessions lasting anywhere from one week to six. Either way, start by sitting down with a calendar and mapping out your week-by-week childcare needs.

Camp costs range considerably, based on staffing and activities. Set your budget for the summer, and work from there. Logistics count too. Find camps within a reasonable commute from your home or on the way to your office. Arrange carpools and connect with other parents who could pick up your child when you can’t. If you’re opting for a summer filled with one- and two-week camps, be sure you’re ready for constant variations in schedule and location.

Listen to Your Child

Once practical concerns have narrowed your search, focus on your camper’s temperament, energy level, likes and dislikes. Does your child need structure and supervision or lots of hanging-out time? Multiple activities or a singular focus? One ongoing program or something new every two weeks?

“We start from what it is the kids like to do,” says El Cerrito mom Anita Mascoli. For her daughter Sofie, this has meant forgoing programs that felt too much like school in favor of less structured, more creative ones. The El Cerrito arts camp Pleiades’ Palette, where Sofie had great fun creating driftwood horses inspired by British artist Heather Jansch, was a better choice than the more rigorous program at Oakland’s California College of the Arts.

Separating our desires from our children’s is also important. “We create fantasies of how we want our kids to experience summer,” says Duplessis, “but it’s not necessarily what they want or need.” Many parents find ways to give their child a vote, with obvious benefits. Sharon Priven, an Albany mom of two teens, observes that “our most successful camp experiences have been those where my kids had a role in choosing the camp.” Priven’s daughter Miriam, who longed to do artwork in a small, inside space, opted for two Berkeley camps, Brushstrokes and Imagination Kids, and loved both. One more tip for keeping your camper happy—if possible, send her to camp with a friend.

Heather Mitchell, founding director of Berkeley’s Monkey Business Camp, advises parents to tune in to their child’s emotional and psychological state as they select a camp. “Most kids are extremely busy during the school year,” she says. “Some have even faced huge challenges like an illness or change in their family structure. Finding a camp that allows kids to relax, have fun and just be themselves can ease some pressure.” If your child needs a calm summer with familiar faces, choose just one or two settings, and consider a camp run by your child’s school. In selecting camps for younger children, Mitchell cautions against multiple programs. “I recommend no more than two camps for kids up to the age of 8 or 9,” she says. “Younger kids typically have more separation anxiety than their older peers and benefit from the chance to settle into one place and bond with staff.”

If you want to give your child a taste of your own summers gone by, choose a more traditional camp, where kids hike in the woods, swim in a lake and cook over a campfire. Programs like Sarah’s Science (with sites in Berkeley and Oakland), Monkey Business in Berkeley, the YMCA camps and scouting camps will at least partly fit the bill. In these settings, your child will spend lots of time outdoors, getting dirty and working up an appetite while exploring nature, singing silly songs and making crafts from popsicle sticks.

Skills of Summer

Although most children relish the break from school, camp is an ideal spot for learning. In programs that offer everything from aikido to woodworking, campers may be surprised by what they love most. And in specialized settings, kids get the chance to indulge a passion or nurture a new interest. Sondra Hall runs the East Bay camp, Take My Word for It!, where girls ages 9 to 12 delve into creative writing and mixed media art. “If your child has shown an inclination toward a certain thing like writing, science, art or a sport,” she says, “the summer is a perfect time to go more in depth into that interest and to be around other kids with the same interest. You’ll also find that the instructors have a depth of knowledge in that area to share with your child.”

Specialized camps abound: campers can windsurf in the Bay at Cal Adventures; spend a day with the zookeeper at the Oakland Zoo; don a chef’s hat and roll pastry dough at Berkeley’s Spun Sugar; dive into serious clowning at Ha Ha This A-Way in Berkeley; build a solar-powered car at Oakland’s Camp Galileo; and learn to get along at the Berkeley Peace Camp.

Erica Friesen is co-director of education at Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science, where this summer’s 47 one- and two-week camp titles include “Fizzy Foamy Camp” and “Build It Up, Take It Apart.” Friesen notes that camp can offer a different and exciting twist on academic subjects. “Summer is a time for exploration and new experiences,” she says. “Maybe your child doesn’t like science in school, but he or she might love it outdoors in the woods.” Friesen also sees kids blossom at camp by finding a tighter community than they have at school. “Their reality may have been ‘I’ve always loved rocks, but nobody at my school loves rocks,’” she says. “These kids can find a soulmate at camp.”

Specialized programs are often the right fit for teens: two favorites in Oakland are BandWorks, where kids can play in a band or record a CD, and Young Actors Workshop, where campers take the stage. For high schoolers ready for a taste of college, Academic Study Associates offers the chance to live on a campus such as U.C. Berkeley and take summer courses. Climbing the camp career ladder is another option, especially for teens who have thrived at a particular camp. My daughter Julia, a college junior, worked her way up from camper to staff member at the Cal sports camps. “Because I was happy as a camper,” she says, “I always knew that I’d want to be a counselor one day.” She followed this notion, started as a junior counselor, and has spent the past five summers gainfully employed at camp.

Help from the Experts

In addition to perusing camp websites, many families get info from the U.C. Berkeley Parents Network. “Check in with other parents,” says Mitchell of Monkey Business. “You really want to hear about a camp from someone you know and trust.” Looking at a camp’s daily schedule provides a good sense of the flow of each day. At the American Association of University Women’s Summer Program Fair, held on Sunday, March 8 in Oakland, you can meet with staff and pick up materials from a myriad of local camps.

To learn more, Mitchell suggests posing these types of questions to camp directors: Who will be with my child all day, and what are the ages and experience levels of the staff? What kind of training do counselors get? What are your procedures in the case of injury or illness, and is an experienced person always onsite? And if you’re wondering whether a camp can accommodate any special needs your child may have, ask. Hiding information about a child’s behavioral or psychological issues can easily backfire and result in the child being asked to leave the camp. Some camps may be willing to modify a child’s activities, provide extra staffing or let you hire an aide. For kids who need more attention or structure than a traditional camp provides, Quest Therapeutic Camp in San Ramon is a good choice.

Camp prices range widely, with the least expensive options, $99 to $200 per week (for a five-day week from 9 to 3), at city-run camps and local YMCAs. (You may be surprised by the many activities offered at local city camps, from sailing at Lake Merritt to arts and crafts at Tilden Park.) A week at a private camp can vary in cost from about $200 to a whopping $875. Weekly fees generally don’t include extended-day care before and after regular camp hours, which costs from around $40 to $80 per week. If you don’t need full-day coverage, half-day camps (at a bit more than half the cost of the full day) are a good option. At Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center, half-day camps cost $200 per week and the full-day program is $350. For help with costs, ask about camp scholarships. Some families in Alameda and Contra Costa counties are eligible for the East Bay Regional Parks Campership program, which provides $200 coupons not only for East Bay parks camps, but also for several private ones.

Most registration deadlines vary from early winter to late spring, but many camps continue to accept campers throughout the summer. If you haven’t already checked into camps of interest, do it now, and you may benefit from an early registration discount.

Finally, if you’re starting to feel jealous of your child, consider family camp, where the whole gang can swim in the river by day and gaze at a night sky bursting with stars. You’ll sleep in a tent or tent cabin, sip hot cocoa by a crackling fire, and brush teeth together in the communal bathroom. And chances are you’ll come home with more leaf prints, lanyards and tie-dyed socks than your kids.

Camping It Up

Following is a partial list of East Bay summer camps and general resources

To visit the following websites, copy and past the url into your browser, or go to page 25 of The Monthly digital edition for live links:


Academic Talent Development Program (ATDP, grades K–11);
Adventure Day Camp (grades pre-K–9);
Albany Sports Camp (ages 4–12);
Academic Study Associates (for students entering grades 10–12);
Albany YMCA (grades K–12);
Aurora School Summer Camp (grades K-5);
BandWorks Summer Camp (ages 8–18);
Bay Area Shakespeare Camps (ages 4–18);
Belladonna’s Fairy Camp (girls ages 6–10);
Berkeley Boosters PAL (ages 11–17);
Berkeley Chess School Summer Camps;
Berkeley Peace Camp (ages 6–12);
Brushstrokes Studio (ages 5–16);
Cal Youth Camps (Explorer Camp, Blue Camp, Cal Adventures and Science and Sports Camp, ages 5–17);
California Adventure Camps (ages 4 1/2–18);
California College of the Arts (grades 6-12);
California Shakespeare Theater (ages 8-18);
Camp Galileo (grades pre-K–5);
Camp Kee Tov (grades K–9);
Camp Tawonga in Yosemite (grades 2-12);
Camp Winnarainbow (ages 7-14);
Chabot Space and Science Center (ages 6–13);
City of Berkeley Day Camp and Teen Camp (grades K–7);
City of Oakland camps (ages 5–18);
Contra Costa Civic Theatre Camp (ages 7–16);
Crowden Center for Music (ages 5–teens);
Downtown Berkeley YMCA (grades K–10; mini camps for pre-K);
Downtown Oakland YMCA;
East Bay BALL Camp (Baseball After Little League, ages 6–11);
East Bay Regional Parks District (campership program provides financial assistance);
Flips-n-Flops Gymnastics Camp (ages 5–12);
Habitot Children’s Museum Summer Camps for Tots (ages 2.9–4.9);
Ha Ha This A-Way: Creative Movement and Theater Arts (ages 5–9);
Head-Royce School Summer Enrichment Program (pre-K–high school);
Hip Wah Chinese American Summer Program (grades 1–7);
Imagination Kids Summer Art Camp (ages 6-14);
Jazz School Summer Programs;
Jewish Community Center of the East Bay (Camp Tzofim, grades K–10);
Kids for the Bay (ages 4–10);
Kids’N Clay (ages 7 and up; 5 and up for Saturday classes);
Kids on Campus Summer Camp (grades 3-8);
Kittredge School Summer Program (grades K-5);
Lawrence Hall of Science (ages 4-18);
Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA, ages 5–15);
Monkey Business Camp (ages 5–17);
Montessori Family School Summer Adventure (ages 6–10);
Oakland Zoo Camp (grades pre-K–12);
Orinda Academy Summer School (middle & high school);
Park Day Summer Arts Camp (ages 6-13);
Pleiades’ Palette (girls ages 6–14);
Quest Therapeutic Camp (ages 6–18);
Roughing It Day Camp (ages 4 1/2–16);
Sarah’s Science (This Land Is Your Land, ages 5–15);
Slide Ranch Summer Day Camp (ages 4–12);
Spun Sugar (ages 7–13);
St. Mary’s College Summer Athletic Camp (ages 6-18);
Stage Door Conservatory (grades 3–12);
Studio Grow Camp (ages 3-5);
Take My Word for It! (girls ages 9-12);
Trapeze Arts (ages 7–14);
Windrush Summer Adventures Program (entering first graders–age 11);
Young Actors Workshop (YAW, grades 6–12);

Berkeley Tuolumne Camp;
Cazadero Performing Arts Camp;
Feather River Camp;
Lair of the Golden Bear;

American Association of University Women’s Summer Program Fair, Sunday, March 8, 1-4:30 p.m.; Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland;
American Camp Association (Northern California Summer Camp Fairs);
Camp Plan It;
U.C. Berkeley Parents Network;

Rachel Trachten is a freelance journalist and copy editor and a regular contributor to The Monthly.

Faces of the East Bay