Mosquito bites, data bytes greet kid campers
LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- Summer camp season is approaching, conjuring images of kids sitting around the campfire, toasting marshmallows and exploring the wonders of ... computer programming and the Internet?
These days designing Web sites is as popular a camp sport as hiking.
Despite some business casualties that coincided with the dot-com bust, computer camp operators such as Cybercamps (http://www.cybercamps.com) and iD Tech Camps (http://www.internalDrive.com) say business is great.
And even traditional summer camps, whose main mission is to instill in children an appreciation of the more rustic aspects of life, have succumbed to the use of technology they previously shunned.
More than two-thirds of the nation's 10,000 camps allow parents to communicate with their kids via e-mail, and about 60 percent have Web sites, said Connie Coutellier, director of professional development of the American Camping Association (http://www.acacamps.org) in Martinsville, Indiana.
"It's a good thing. Parents today want to maintain contact and make sure their child is safe," she said.
"In reality, some feel guilty they've sent their child away. The Web sites help camps tell their story and many are updated with digital pictures of children," she said.
Coutellier said navigating the Web has also played an important role in the selection of camps. "Through Web sites, you can click and find a camp that meets your criteria. The number of people selecting camps this way has increased tremendously and it allows kids to get in and be part of the selection process," she said.
Coutellier said the U.S. camp business remains strong, with an annual growth rate of about 9 percent. About 12 million kids attended day and sleepaway camps last summer.
Several camps said they chose staff via an online application process and the American Camping Association even offers an online course on how to start your own day camp.
I want my MP3
But, clearly, a line needs to be drawn between camp and a home life dominated by gadgetry and interactivity, experts say.
While several traditional camps now offer computer classes, they are available only at limited intervals. Otherwise some campers would be on them all day long.
Many camps also ban kids from bringing video game players, cell phones, portable CD players and MP3 players in the hopes of getting campers back to basics.
"Cellphones are a problem because its difficult to keep them charged and because camps are usually in more remote areas, making it hard to get good reception," said Coutellier.
She said many camps now temporarily appropriate cellphones, keeping them charged and ready for use during specified times.
"Generally, we discourage kids taking games, cellphones and and stuff like that because they interfere with camp activities," Coutellier said.
For some kids, leaving gadgets behind is even harder than saying goodbye to friends and families.
"I think they definitely miss being online. But if they're having a great camp experience, that shouldn't be an issue," said Hope, a Manhattan-based mother of three.
"Camp should be about being outside. It's not about being on a computer, which is an isolating thing," she said.
Nevertheless, she loves having e-mail access to her kids. Most camps are not interactive, meaning parents can e-mail their kids but the camps require kids to respond via the U.S. Postal Service to get a sense of letter writing.
"I like the e-mail because I can give them a piece of mail each day, which is incredibly soothing," Hope said.
Some camps said e-mail has also spurred a rise in communication between dads and campers, since fathers are more apt to drop an electronic line from the office than take up a pen to write a letter.
Got the bug
Some members of the newest generation simply cannot cut the cyber-cord. For these "geeks in the making", computer camps -- featuring six hours of classes on 3-D animation, Web design, game design and robotics -- may be the answer.
"Our registrations are higher than ever. There's huge demand and we have huge waiting lists at some of our colleges," said Karen Thurm Safran, vice president of marketing for iD Tech Camps, which operates camps at 27 colleges nationwide.
Another company, Cybercamps, which started with one camp at one university six years ago, now operates camps at about 45 college campuses.
Both companies said they were following a course of steady planned growth, particularly after one of their competitors, Atlanta-based American Computer Experience, pulled the plug on classes last August after nine years of operation, citing cash-flow problems.
Industry insiders said American Computer, which had operated camps at 80 locations, had overextended itself.
While Cybercamps and iD Tech Camps appear to be following a more conservative growth course, they cite other challenges, such as attracting more girls to their programs.
The lower proportion of girls reflects the state of the work force in high-tech as well as intense merchandising toward boys by consumer electronic companies, camp officials said.
"Our goal is to engage more girls in technology. Studies show boys get conditioned and reinforced in schools to go into technological fields. We're trying to develop girls' tech confidence in a supportive team playing environment," said Safran for iD Tech Camps.
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