Dubbed a kinder, gentler version of dodge ball, the gaga pit is all the rage at West Chester’s Camp Arrowhead. And the more in the pit, the merrier. “Kids would play gaga all day long,” says Brian Witt, Arrowhead’s director.
Witt has been attending or working at Arrowhead since 1984. He started there at the tender age of two. It helps that his grandfather founded the camp in 1956—and Witt’s mom ran Arrowhead before he took over in 2014.
Grandad wanted some measure of formality with camp directors for campers seven and under, so counselors and staff have always gone by “aunt” and “uncle.” “Junior campers don’t bother with that. It’s just, ‘Hey, Brian,’” says Witt.
A West Chester University graduate with eight years of teaching experience in the Avon Grove School District, Witt has a child with an individualized education program. The district wants him in summer classes. “Schooling is important, and my kids know it’s their job to do well,” Witt says. “But he thrives at camp. It builds his confidence.”
Plenty of local parents agree. They’ve returned in full force to Arrowhead after the pandemic. “For summer 2023, we filled up by September 2022—a first for us,” Witt notes.
Arrowhead has surveyed parents about technology and devices. “Kids need to learn to socialize—get off their tablets,” says Witt. “Parents asked us to be the bad guys, so we’ll take a camper’s phone away if we have to.”
Though camp ends at 3:15 p.m., Witt says many parents do pick up their kids early for tutoring. But is throwing academics into the summer mix necessary? The answer varies depending on the expert. “By middle or high school, if there’s an academic gap, taking a specific accredited class could make up for lost time,” says college entrance consultant Aviva Legatt, founder of Ardmore’s Ivy Insight.
Legatt adds that academic camps—and their value—vary greatly depending on a student’s grade level and the purpose of the program. “Parents shouldn’t pay for camps that don’t provide specific results,” she says.
Among older kids, precollege programs were once seen as a prerequisite for gaining admission to elite universities. But that’s a myth. University of Pennsylvania’s Leadership in the Business World is an intensive summer program for rising seniors who want to sample a top-notch undergraduate business education. With its global reach, low acceptance rate and high price tag, LBW does attract those who tend to get accepted at Penn. But it’s not intended as a preadmission requirement.
The benefits of an expensive on-campus summer program may be less tangible. Students can network, get acclimated and perhaps even obtain a letter of recommendation. “Universities are looking for producers more than consumers, leaning toward those students with exponential impact,” says Legatt. “That starts long before high school.”
And what about summer learning loss? The sort Legatt has seen of late tends to be related to stress and burnout. “For the first time, I saw kids who were checked out and couldn’t put words on the page unless I was sitting next to them,” she says. “Friends in the tutoring industry said they saw even more of it—kids needed support just getting through homework.”
That speaks to a need for summer destressing. Friends School Haverford seems to think so. They’ve removed academics from their 2023 camp lineup.
Summer fun notwithstanding, we all pray that our kids pick up crucial executive function skills by high school. Stressors can wreak havoc on things like time management. If your child appears to be struggling, “don’t waste your money on tutoring,” says Legatt. “Get a referral from a pediatrician for occupational therapy. They can evaluate any executive function challenges in cooperation with your insurance. Then follow up with a tutor if you need one.”
If you’re convinced it’s learning loss, Legatt’s Ivy Insight provides executive function assessments for middle and high schoolers. “Either way, an evaluation is a good place to start,” she says. “What you might think is social or academic could be a need for a little support.”
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