University youth summer camps bounce back to support childhood enrichment

Camps provide social, emotional and physical engagement across the commonwealth
Penn State employees stand under a tent to register sport camp participants for the day.

Middle school and high school athletes were eager to return for the annual summer athletics camps hosted by Intercollegiate Athletics. Participants learn proper technique, receive skill training, undergo sports drills and engage in small group games. 

Credit: William Mincer

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Each summer, children eagerly await Penn State's various summer camps and now, over a year after the start of the pandemic, the University is once again offering its regularly scheduled in-person summer camps to provide children with vital social interactions.

Penn State's youth camps usually serve nearly 200,000 children from preschool through high school across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. For summer 2021, Penn State’s youth camps are welcoming children to the University’s campuses for in-person and remote camps covering topics such as wildlife, sports, science and theater.

Sandra Weaver, manager of youth programs compliance in the Office of Ethics and Compliance, explained that every participating unit has constructed a COVID-19 safety plan in accordance with all University health and safety stipulations that pertain to youth programs. Plans from units detail various procedures including communication, daily health screening, food, transportation and more.

Weaver shared that it was critical for Penn State's youth camps to offer in-person experiences for summer 2021, as many children have been attending school remotely over the last year, and in-person interactions are vital to childhood development. 

“We are here to promote a safe mental, emotional and physical environment for our campers. This pandemic has impacted everyone and we can’t forget about the children,” Weaver said. “Having safety plans in place was a mandatory step to bring our camps back and I think that our camp directors have done a fantastic job.”

Penn State Fayette, the Eberly Campus, traditionally hosts over 25 summer camp options for their tight-knit local community. Due to COVID-19, the campus scaled back its offerings to seven camps for summer 2021. This year's programming includes the Olympics, world cultures, gardening, robotics, science behind the magic and a STEM camp.

Barbara Koffler, director of outreach and continuing education at Fayette; Lynne Roy, summer youth camp coordinator; and Sandy Quarrick, education program coordinator, explained that they wanted to bring camps back to an in-person status as many of the local children are repeat campers. 

“We have children that start coming to our camps as kindergartners and join us each year until they graduate high school,” Roy said. “They look forward to summer camp and we missed them, too.”

Peer socialization: development, enrichment and mental wellness

The group at Penn State Fayette explained that while they are joyful to see campers this year, they noticed a phenomenon: the children are more inclined to interact with adults for the first couple of days; however, they were friendly with one another after spending a few days together.

Karen Bierman, Evan Pugh Professor, professor of psychology and human development and family studies and director of the Child Study Center, shared that this experience is not unusual. 

Bierman explained that children may need time to adjust to social settings once again, and that summer camps provide children with a key component of social development: meeting new friends. Bierman noted that many children have missed out on various social development opportunities due to the pandemic, such as meeting new children at school, on the bus and otherwise. 

“Peer relationships serve as a source of entertainment and companionship that relationships with adults don't provide,” Bierman said. “Peer relationships are equal and teach children reciprocity and communication, as well as how to manage their feelings and follow the rules with their peers. The pressure to learn and manage yourself within social norms is a core skill set, and childhood socialization is a unique training ground for success in adulthood.”

Bierman also expressed that summer camps provide a unique educational setting: children can pursue interests that they may otherwise not have as much exposure to during the regular school year.

The Shaver's Creek Environmental Center camps provide a vast selection of opportunities involving nature exploration for children interested in wildlife. Shaver's Creek offers various camps to investigate the natural world via activities, games and hands-on projects. For 2021, Shaver's Creek’s focus is on birds, mammals and fungi.

Shaver's Creek caters to children from preschool through high school with various programs, including wee wonders, discovery camp, explorer camp, boats and boots, investigators and leaders-in-training.

"We design our camps in a way that the syllabi are moldable for each group," said Tesha Omeis, summer camp program director. "One group may be active, one group may prefer journaling and one group may want to get their hands dirty. It's all about providing campers with the ability to learn more about their interests and providing them with an opportunity to be successful."

In addition, spending time at a summer camp that offers their interests may elicit a feeling of freedom and help to alleviate a degree of loneliness experienced during the pandemic, according to Martha Wadsworth, professor of psychology. 

“The last year has been hard on kids, and mental health problems have increased over the last year,” Wadsworth said. “We have seen both higher levels of anxiety and an increase in depression for children during the pandemic. Depending on their circumstances, some children lacked peer support during this time. Parents are important, but peers often provide each other with unique and valuable support as well.”

Getting back into the swing of things

Bierman and Wadsworth both expressed that another issue arose during the pandemic: less physical activity. Bierman and Wadsworth explained that, generally, children were more sedentary during the pandemic and didn't get as much exercise as they would normally.

“With summer camps, kids are going to be moving around and experiencing more physical activities with their peers,” Bierman said. “The increase in movement is a bonus.”

Some camps, such as those hosted by Intercollegiate Athletics, provide middle school and high school-aged children with sport-specific education and training for beginners and experienced athletes. Offerings include baseball, basketball, gymnastics, ice hockey, lacrosse, volleyball, softball, football and much more.

Participants in the athletics camps learn proper technique, receive skill training, undergo sports drills and engage in small group games. Before COVID, students received more classroom education for mental health, nutrition and prevention of injuries, all topics slated to return fully in subsequent years.

William Mincer, director of sport camps, expressed that it has been ‘amazing’ to see the children back on campus. He hopes to build their confidence, teach discipline, and provide positive exposure to the sport and the University. 

“For some campers, it’s their first foray back into a physical, athletic activity,” said Mincer. “From our perspective, it’s important for the campers to have a well-rounded experience. I think that attending camp helps children socialize and prepares them for future success. We want to keep them motivated and interested in sports, as well as teach them what it means to be a Penn Stater.”

Moving forward to the fall, Wadsworth expressed that the quicker children are integrated back into society, the faster they can bounce back.

“Kids are resilient, but they are not unbreakable,” Wadsworth said. “One year is 5% of a child's first 18 years, so it is critical that they get back to in-person interactions with other students and teachers for both their education and mental health. To bounce back, they may need a longer back-to-school adjustment period this fall, and camps are a great way to get them warmed up.”