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5 Cool Summer Camps in the Philadelphia Suburbs

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Back to Nature

At Tyler Arboretum’s summer camps, it’s all about getting in touch with the natural world. “We have 650 acres, so all of our camp levels spend a lot of time outside exploring different ecosystems, whether that’s hiking, taking binoculars out, going up to the frog pond, rolling logs, looking for bugs or visiting our edible garden,” says Liz Hornbach, Tyler’s youth programs manager and camp director. “Science shows that kids who spend time outdoors are happier, healthier, more creative, more confident, less anxious and less stressed. Nature play gives kids the opportunity to be a little bit unstructured, to use their creativity to create their own rules to explore and discover.”

Campers of various ages explore the great outdoors in varying degrees. The Explorers program covers grades 1-5, and the emphasis is on discovering and trying new things. Each week has a theme, which ranges from the arts to something STEM focused. Campers go on short hikes, investigate streams, take butterfly nets into the meadows and explore the Media-based arboretum’s edible garden.

Kids in the Naturalists middle school program go on longer treks to unique ecosystems and, depending on the theme, meet with field specialists from outside Tyler. This year, a NASA scientist is slated to discuss how satellites help track climate change. Another week will focus on robotics.

Campers at this age also have the opportunity to camp for a night at Tyler, cook their own meals, and learn how to build a fire and shelter. For those looking to explore beyond the arboretum, there’s an option that focuses on field trips where campers spend two days at Tyler and three offsite. “This year, we’re doing an aquatic theme, so they’ll go to a water park, tubing down the Brandywine and kayaking,” says Hornbach.

While the focus at Tyler is on building connections with nature, it’s also about building connections with others. To further facilitate that, there are several all-camp activities, including a campfire where kids perform skits, sing songs and listen to a history-based ghost story. “Our camp has really found value in helping children build those interpersonal skills, build confidence and try new things,” says Hornbach.

Tyler Arboretum’s summer camp.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Already a prime spot for families year-round, Elmwood Park Zoo gives kids the chance to get close to select animals to learn about their habitats and behaviors. The Norristown-based camp program is open to everyone from toddlers to early teens. In half-day sessions, campers as young as 3 learn the basics about different species. Full days are available for kids 6-15 years old. “The theme for all the camps is to connect kids to wildlife and have them feel inspired to take action in their everyday lives,” says Laura Houston, the zoo’s director of education. All campers can interact with the zoo’s animal ambassadors—rabbits, ferrets, hedgehogs, porcupines, skunks, owls, hawks and eagles. “My ultimate favorite part is just watching their excitement meeting a new animal friend,” Houston says.

Depending on the age group, other camp activities include “bio blitzes” of the local stream, building zoo models, and meeting with zoo and commissary staff to learn about diets. Many also take advantage of Elmwood’s Treetop Adventures zip line course.

Through observation, Houston says, older campers “have to make decisions about what the animal is doing, what its behavior is, and if it’s engaging with another animal.” The zoo’s newest camp, for 13- to 15-year-olds, is “an opportunity for them to really learn what it is to be a zookeeper and to work with conservation,” she adds.

Ultimately, the idea is to create life-long animal lovers. “If we can lay that foundation and make that deep connection when they’re children, then the hope is we’ll have a much greater group of savvy conservation stewards when they become adults,” Houston says.

Elmwood Park Zoo’s summer camp.

Calling the Shots

Those who dream of one day being on ESPN or hosting their own sports radio show can get a serious taste of that world at the Play by Play Sports Broadcasting summer camp. The Lafayette Hills-based company has camps throughout the country, including a day and overnight program at Villanova University. Running June 22-26 this year, the camp introduces kids to every aspect of sports broadcasting, from anchoring to sideline reports to play-by-play to podcasting.

The program was founded by area native and sports personality Jeremy Treatman, along with Steven Goldstein. “We bring in sports broadcasting celebrities, local sports talk radio hosts and local pro team play-by-play announcers,” says Goldstein, adding that campers can ask questions and take photos with the visiting pros.

Throughout the week, they’re on camera in front of green screens, creating shows and simulating a pregame broadcast and their own version of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption. Campers don’t need to have any previous experience—though some do.

The program’s focus varies from football to baseball to basketball. If the Phillies, the AA Reading Phillies or the AAA Lehigh Valley IronPigs are playing at home, campers attend a game. If not, they tour Citizens Bank Park, Lincoln Financial Field or the Wells Fargo Center.

Many Play by Play campers hope to pursue a career in the field, but even those who don’t can benefit. “They’ve never been in front of a camera or behind the microphone, and now they’re confident with public speaking,” says Goldstein.

For a more advanced experience, Play by Play offers a smaller three-day workshop in Cherry Hill, N.J.’s RVN TV. Running July 28-30, it’s open to those 15 and up. “The celebrities at the workshop are a little more serious,” Goldstein says. “They’re talking about exactly how they do their job—what they do on a daily basis,”

Play By Play Sports Broadcasting summer camp.

Sail Away

Located on a protected stretch of the Delaware River in Essington, the Corinthian Yacht Club of Philadelphia is the perfect place for kids to learn the essentials. Open to ages 8 and older, the camp runs one-week sessions throughout summer for beginner and intermediate sailors. The first weeks of camp are geared toward newer sailors, allowing them to become comfortable around the water. “There’s a lot of teamwork, because when you take a sailboat out, you’ve got to set it up, put the sails on it, launch it,” says Arthur Bell III, a longtime member of the club who helped revamp the camp about 10 years ago. “The kids learn how to work together, trim the sails and steer the boat together, and it requires really good communication skills. There’s a lot of working together toward a common goal.”

Campers go out on six-person Flying Scots with a captain or skipper. They aren’t required to have any sailing knowledge. For those with prior experience, there’s a race camp. “We set up courses; we teach more strategy—where to be on the water, how to adjust to shifting wind and water conditions, and then also how to set yourself up so you can get around the course as fast as possible,” Bell says.

Using C420 two-person boats, campers sometimes take lunchtime excursions to nearby Little Tinicum Island. There’s a general focus on getting off the starting line, and instructors evaluate progress throughout the day. When winds aren’t favorable, campers go swimming at the club’s pool or use paddleboards and kayaks.

For high school students, there’s the club’s sailing league in spring and fall. “We practice during the week, and then they race on Sunday afternoons,” says Bell, who, along with another Conestoga High School parent, was instrumental in the program’s creation.

Whatever their skill level, the goal is to make kids comfortable around the water and on a boat. “It’s a great sport,” says Bell, noting that for many, it lasts a lifetime.

Candy Crush

Thanks to Kathy Wolper’s background as an elementary school teacher, campers in her Kitchen Wizards summer camps learn more than just baking and cooking skills. “If they talk about patterns, which they learn in math, we talk about it with how many cookies to put on a cookie sheet,” she says. “What would the pattern be if we had 15 cookies on a cookie sheet? What would make the most sense?”

Wolper attributes the success of her Kitchen Wizards camp to the popularity of competitive cooking and baking shows on the Food Network and other channels. The camps are held at various area locations in conjunction with Marple Newtown Recreation, Haverford Township, and the Upper and Lower Merion parks and recreation departments. Themes vary by age, from a sweets-focused class for little ones to those more specific to candy and chocolate. More in-depth themes include “Cooking Around the Clock,” where campers prepare foods for different meals throughout the day. For “Cooking Around the World” and “Cooking Around the USA,” Wolper brings geography into play. “We talk about preparing a meal and how you don’t start with the salad and end with making the dessert,” she says. “You have to think about timing for everything and make the things that take the most time first.”

After camp, which typically consists of four half days, kids take home an assortment of recipes, along with food they made, an apron they decorate on their first day, and a chef’s hat.

And Wolper isn’t afraid to share a few stories of her own mistakes. “They can see that you don’t have to be perfect,” she says.

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