Traditional summer camps are great, but many parents, kids want s'more choices

From art to zoology – something for everyone

CINCINNATI — Summer camps are not what they used to be for school children.

Sure, thousands of local kids will participate in traditional athletic camps, and many will be swatting mosquitoes and singing "Kumbaya" around the campfire this summer at decades-old, outdoor-themed camps. But many 21st century parents look for something more in a summer camp.

Each year before the school year comes to an end, there’s a dash to find diverse, hands-on educational opportunities for little learners to help prevent the dreaded summer learning loss, or “summer slide,” that can occur when kids take a long break from the classroom.

In Greater Cincinnati, there’s no shortage of options for summer enrichment opportunities. Children will be flocking to schools, universities and local organizations in droves beginning next month to participate in daycamps that focus on educating children in subjects from architecture to zoology.

“The great thing about summer camps is that kids can get exposure to subjects they have an interest in without the rigidity of a typical classroom,” said Madhura Kulkarni, who leads Northern Kentucky University’s Center for Integrative Natural Science and Mathematics (CINSAM). “It gives them more freedom to explore and experiment for themselves.”

NKU’s CINSAM offers summer camps for children as young as rising third-graders and others that include opportunities for high school students. The program ties in with the center’s mission of enhancing teaching, learning and the application of science and math at all educational levels.

“The kids in our summer camps get to utilize all the facilities here on campus and make them their own,” Kulkarni said. “They’re getting opportunities that are not available in K-12 schools. But they’re also learning through fun and finding joy in their discoveries.”

That added focus on fun is a common theme in summer programs across the region. Kulkarni has a Ph.D. in biogeochemistry, but she’s also the mother of two elementary school children. Like most parents, she knows one of the keys to successful summer learning programs, especially for younger children, is keeping kids engaged.

That’s why camp organizers keep activities student-centered. For example, CINSAM camps include activities like mobile game app development, rocket launches, LEGO building and robotics, as well as visits to both NKU’s planetarium and two local engineering firms.

“When they love a particular topic, they’re more willing to delve deeper,” Kulkarni said. “It opens all kinds of new learning opportunities in related fields.”

Something for Every Learner

The center’s list of camps is broad in scope but just scratches the surface in terms of what is available locally. To get an idea of the number of summer enrichment camps that match up with even the most specific field of study, consider this: CINSAM is just one academic department at one university.

At NKU alone, there are additional camps offered each summer for students in a variety of fields, including nursing, journalism and the performing arts. There’s even a camp specifically for young string players.

At the University of Cincinnati, the list is even longer – and pretty exhaustive. There are summer camp offerings from the vast majority of its colleges and academic programs. Kids can choose from dozens of day camps all summer long in disciplines that include engineering and applied science; computer science and information technology; architecture, art and design; and the performing arts.

There are also similar summer camp programs at local museums, public libraries, civic centers and K-12 schools. The list goes on and on. While that might seem overwhelming, it’s actually good news. The bottom line: Even for young children, there is a little something for everyone.

Is your child the next great innovator? Camp Invention offers weeklong camps for rising first- through- sixth-graders at public elementary schools on both sides of the river.

Is private school more your speed? Villa Madonna Academy has partnered with the University of Louisville’s J.B. Speed School of Engineering to offer a new camp for regional high school students at its Villa Hills campus. Covington Latin School also hosts ExploreMore camps specifically for local gifted and talented students.

Does your child love animals? The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and Newport Aquarium’s WAVE Foundation offer day camps with lessons that go well beyond their exhibits, where children explore topics such as conservation, animal behavior, biology and even data collection and reporting.

The WAVE Foundation is an independent, educational foundation at the Newport Aquarium. It recently revamped its summer camp programming to include a bigger focus on age-appropriate, hands-on learning, according to education coordinator Will Gosnell.

Its Camp WAVE, a series of weeklong, themed day camps, offers a specially designed curriculum for children in three age groups: grades K-2, 3-5 and 6-8.

“Our mission is to excite, engage and educate the community about aquatic life and conservation,” said Gosnell, who coordinates the foundation’s summer camp program. “Our camp program gives us 35 hours with kids. That’s exciting for us, because it gives us a lot of time to really let kids explore the theme of their camp.”

Gosnell said fun themes, including Animal Superheroes and Shark Week, help the foundation reach children with different interests.

“When we talk superheroes, we get to see and interact with real animals that have unique adaptations and talk about why they have a biological need for that adaptation,” he said. “There’s nothing more powerful than getting up-close, hands-on experiences.”

Connected by STEM/STEAM

Local summer camps cover a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively, but there is a tie that binds most of them: STEM and STEAM education.

STEM is the acronym for science, technology, engineering and math. STEAM is STEM plus the arts. More educators and parents, and even the U.S. Department of Education, are calling for a well-rounded education for K-12 students that includes things like art and music.

Increasing students’ knowledge in STEM fields has been a national priority for years. The Department of Education projects a 20 percent increase in STEM-based jobs between 2010 and 2020, according to the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative.

To help answer that call and improve the summer slide problem, which studies show is worse among low-income students, the collaborative is launching a Summer of STEM initiative. The new program, funded through corporate and private investment, aims to create opportunities for students to explore STEM learning and careers specifically during the summer months.

The initiative’s two main objectives are to increase awareness and accessibility, especially among disadvantaged and underserved student populations, said Mary Adams, program manager .

“Summer vacation is a great time to keep students engaged in learning, but the reality is that some families can’t afford a $200 camp for their children,” she said. “We received the funds to provide eight mini-grants to reach these kids, and we’re thrilled to be able to help provide them with awesome STEM opportunities this summer.”

Dozens of partners are joining the Summer of STEM initiative, including NKU, the Girl Scouts, Cincinnati Observatory and iSPACE. The local STEM collaborative is also working with Cincinnati Public Schools, Northern Kentucky public school districts, Boys and Girls Clubs, the YWCA & YMCA, and local libraries to reach more students, Adams said.

Another joint project, between ArtsWave and the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative, will help educators, parents and youth find summer camp opportunities. Cincy Arts + STEM is an integrated site that connects the community to STEAM-related programs.

“We’ve created a one-stop shop where people can find exactly what they’re looking for together on one site,” said Adams. “It brings together all of the wonderful STEM and arts opportunities our vibrant community has to offer.”

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