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Benchmark Summer Camp: Robb Gaskins

March 20, 2010

From time to time, I conduct interviews of camp directors to get their advice for parents. This week, I exchanged emails with Robb Gaskins from Benchmark Summer Camp.  This was my first interview with a director of an academic summer camp, so I was interested in learning more about when an academic camp makes sense, and how to encourage a child that is not enthusiastic about going to an academic camp.  

With so many camps to choose from, any tips on how to pick the right camp for your kids?

When selecting a camp for your child, the first issue you want to consider is what you know about your child. You want to pick a camp that will result in a positive experience for your son/daughter while addressing any goals for attending camp that you or your child have.

It is wise to review resources that describe camps in the area(s) you are considering. If possible, visit the camps, review camp websites, attend a camp fair where you can learn more about the camps in which you are interested, and, most importantly, talk to parents whose children have attended the camps. When reviewing camps, consider the facilities and activities, but, more importantly, get a sense of the people involved in the camp. Ideally, a camp will have beautiful facilities, exciting activities, and dynamic, caring staff members. But, of those three, the staff is the going to be the factor most strongly correlated with the quality of your child’s experience. Knowledgeable and compassionate individuals can make any activities in any setting memorable and rewarding, while even the best facilities and activities fall short when directed by uninspired leaders.

Is an academic camp for everyone? When should parents consider an academic camp? What if a child is not interested, but the parent thinks he or she needs it?

I believe any child could benefit from a strong academic camp that is a good match for who that child is as a learner and as a person. Research indicates that students tend to lose ground academically over the summer, with struggling learners losing even more ground than their peers who are not struggling. This dip in academic performance seems to be related to a pronounced reduction in engagement in reading, writing, and content area tasks during the summer. Thus, structured activities that get students engaged in academic tasks while concurrently solidifying and/or introducing learning strategies are beneficial, particularly for students who are struggling with learning. Having said that, if a child is performing well academically, and is actively engaged in reading, writing, and learning during the summer without any external prompting, an academic camp is less of a priority.

It is not unusual for children to express a desire to avoid an academic setting in the summer, particularly students who have experienced difficulty in school. However, if it is clear to you as a parent that your child could benefit from academic reinforcement in the summer, it is important to begin searching for an academic camp that is a good match for your child. Ideally, the camp will include components that will appeal to your child and help you “sell” the experience to him/her (e.g., an exciting sports/recreation program, a drama class, or a great arts and crafts program), but sometimes children remain unconvinced. In those instances, I would reassure your child that you are confident that this will be a positive experience for him/her and move forward with what you know is in the child’s best interest. If you have selected a strong program that is a good match for your child, it should work out.

What questions should parents ask a camp?

A few important questions that parents should ask about camp include questions about the experience of teachers/counselors, the camp’s philosophy, and the instructional style that guides the teachers’/counselors’ interactions with the children. This information should help you determine the degree to which a camp is a good match for your child. On a separate note, it is not a bad idea to ask if there is a nurse on staff or how medical issues are addressed.

How should parents prepare their kids for camp, particularly an academic camp?

Unless the camp specifically asks for students to engage in any prerequisite activities, I don’t think there is anything children need to do to prepare for camp. Probably the best thing for the students to do between the end of the school year and the start of camp is simply to relax and enjoy a less structured schedule for a while. If there is an opportunity for the child to visit the camp at some time before the summer, that is ideal, but it is not imperative. Sharing your genuine excitement about a camp doesn’t hurt, so long as it doesn’t seem to your child like you are pushing too hard. Ideally, the camp will sell itself once the child becomes immersed in it.

Any last tips for parents?

Clarify the qualities you are seeking in a summer camp, look for the camps available to you that seem to meet your criteria, seek further information about your options (e.g., visit the camps, speak with a camp representative to get a better sense of the match between the camp and your child, learn more about the knowledge and experience of the teachers/counselors, find out about the philosophy underlying camp activities, and talk to parents whose children have attended the camp), and select the camp that you determine to be the best fit for your child.

Lastly, please tell us what’s special about the camp at Benchmark School?

Benchmark School’s summer camp is a great mix of academics and recreational activities. Since 1971, Benchmark School has provided a summer camp for students ages 6 to 11 who can benefit from reading and writing instruction beyond the regular school year. The five-week camp combines Benchmark’s internationally recognized language arts instruction (e.g., teaching strategies related to comprehension, writing, decoding, and self knowledge) with an exciting recreation program filled with a wide range of enjoyable activities (e.g., team sports, outdoor confidence course, zip wire, arts and crafts, science discovery club, swimming). The central goal of the camp is to develop confidence and self-esteem, as well as skills and strategies in both language arts and recreation. Our program is strong because of the knowledge, experience, enthusiasm, caring, and dedication of the teachers, counselors, and supervisors who work at the camp. Our intention is that by the end of the summer, students will have worked (and played) hard, learned a lot, and had fun!

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