Making the best of the 2020 season, local camps now look ahead to continue offering kids much-needed socialization with health and safety in mind.
Each quarter at the Acting Academy for Kids & Teens, kids produce a musical theater experience complete with singing and dancing.
“The crown jewel at AA4K is [our] Summer Performing Arts Camps for kids starting as young as 4,” says Acting Academy for Kids & Teens Founder/Director Stephen J. Zygo. “These week-long mini-musicals are a wonderful opportunity for kids.”
But the pandemic shut down the Mission Viejo-based Acting Academy two days before their winter production of “The Little Mermaid.” The academy, along with many camps and workshops geared toward Orange County’s youth, was forced to pivot in the same way schools and restaurants have.
“When COVID-19 hit, we had to cancel our Spring Break Camps,” says Lori Whalen, assistant director at the Environmental Nature Center in Newport Beach. “We needed to find a way to make camps happen, because we know that nature is essential to our community’s kids.”
At Bionerds, a hands-on biology workshop provider for kids based in Tustin, the transition from in-person to online happened fast.
“We quickly, within days, had to modify and adapt all our hands-on curriculum to the online format,” says Diana Dizon, M.S., president at Bionerds.
Amy Reda, owner of Endless Sun Surf School in Newport Beach, says her school focused on a lot more private lessons in 2020.
“This was the first year that we didn’t have a spring and summer season, due to being a non-essential business,” says Reda.
For many families with young children, camps are indeed essential. Camp programs can empower young people.
“Today’s children often have limited opportunities to connect with the natural environment,” says Whalen. “They spend more time watching TV and playing video games than they do outside. Immersive experiences in nature are important to children’s intellectual, emotional, social and physical development.”
Erin Bianchi Hibbert of the fashion-design- and sewing-focused Fashion Camp in Tustin echoes that sentiment.
“More and more kids are doing everything on their computers,” Hibbert says. “Giving them the ability to use their hands and minds to create something tangible is a benefit that is unparalleled.”
Reda says the skills kids acquire at surf camp can stay with them long after the session ends.
“If you give kids a positive connection to the ocean and surfing early on, it can become a healthy outlet they can turn to for the rest of their lives,” she says.
Camp can also help kids cultivate a sense of belonging. RAD (Rising Above Disabilities) Camp, for example, offers a series of overnight weekend and summer residential camp programs each year for children and adults with developmental disabilities in Southern California.
“Our biggest mission is to serve [our campers] in a safe, fun and caring environment while helping them learn new things and celebrate their different abilities at all levels,” says Meghan Clem, executive director and co-founder of RAD Camp.
Keeping Kids Safe
But during a pandemic, how safe are youth camps and workshops? In the interest of understanding successful interventions to prevent and mitigate COVID transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) observed four overnight camps of similar size and duration in Maine from June to August 2020. The resulting report, released in August 2020, found that the diligent use of multiple non-pharmaceutical interventions, such as mask-wearing, was successful in preventing and mitigating SARS-CoV-2 transmission at the four camps.
Although not all Orange County camps are overnight camps, they are employing much of the same strategies used by the camps in the study.
“Like everywhere else, we’ve heightened hygiene practices, “ says Whalen. “We literally clean the bathroom between each kid using it. Camp groups have their own dedicated materials, which do not come into contact with other camp groups, and which are sanitized between each use.”
At Acting Academy for Kids & Teens, parts of the program are being held virtually.
“Learning editing software, sound software and online tools like YouTube Live and Facebook Live have all presented their own learning curves and challenges, but we have been able to successfully meet our students’ needs to still connect and have a ‘community’ during a very lonely and trying time,” says Zygo.
Endless Sun Surf School takes place under the Newport Beach Pier, outside and with plenty of space to distance.
“Many of the things we do on the sand [getting ready, learning, playing games] can be done with masks on,” says Reda.
RAD Camp’s overnight weekend and summer camps normally take place at Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center in Orange, but that changed in 2020.
“In light of the pandemic and to ensure the safety of our campers and staff, last summer we pivoted to an online model and our first-ever fully remote program,” says Clem.
Hitting Some Snags
However, switching to socially distanced camp hasn’t been without its glitches. Last spring, Fashion Camp fielded many requests for Zoom sewing classes, which didn’t go as smoothly as they hoped.
“With sewing, the first hurdle was you have to have a machine,” says Hibbert. “Then you’ll need all the supplies and tools to go with that. … Now let’s say you have all the supplies, you need to be able to thread the machine, and then follow our instruction, over the computer. It is tricky — we can’t reach our hands through the computer and help when a child is confused or can’t figure it out.”
Bionerds also faced challenges.
“Some activities that require students to be less than six feet apart had to be modified,” says Dizon. “All activities, specimens and tools we have in class had to be individualized or separated.”
Despite the hurdles, most camps have found ways to continue their work. Bionerds is still offering biology workshops for kids K-8 as live and interactive virtual classes.
“We are great at teaching hands-on biology using [an] online platform now and are in the process of having our online program subscriptions launched soon,” says Dizon.
At RAD Camp, Clem says they are enjoying their new adapted models — RAD Remote and RAD Club. RAD Club is an online monthly subscription service that includes exclusive digital access to adaptable recreational content, like dance parties and music trivia, plus engaging activity videos with detailed visual instructions.
“We’ll be excited to resume our in-person camp experience once it’s safe to do so, but in the meantime, we’ve found the silver lining in the pandemic with our remote model that paved the way in creating RAD Club,” Clem says.
Fashion Camp took a similar route by offering popular Fashion Camp projects as “do it at home” kits available online. What started as just a few kits has grown into dozens of options, now sold through Etsy (fashioncampathome.etsy.com).
“They come complete with instructions, patterns and supplies for projects like unicorn pillows, fanny packs and scrunchies,” says Hibbert. “Over the holidays, we created Ugly Sweater Kits and sold hundreds of them all over the country.”
At the Environmental Nature Center, Whalen says being forced to rethink the status quo has led to many positive discoveries they might not have encountered without the pandemic.
“We have loved all of the silver linings we’ve discovered in 2020!” says Whalen. “The staggered drop-offs and pick-ups have streamlined check-in and check-out significantly.”
At Fashion Camp, Hibbert says they realized putting kids in individual work stations to maintain social distance also made for more attentive learning.
“We used to think the communal aspect was important for the kids to socialize, and part of the way we make sewing fun,” says Hibbert. “Now though, we have found that separating the kids at an individual work station has allowed them to stay more focused and allowed our instructors to more clearly identify kids who might be struggling.”
A New Season Ahead
Camp enrollment is open now as camps prepare for the new season. Fashion Camp will roll out their summer camp program in February. Registration is already open for the Environmental Nature Center’s Presidents Week Camp from Feb. 15-19. After-School Nature Camps will continue through the end of the school year in two-week sessions. They also plan to offer their Spring Break Camp from April 12-16. Acting Academy for Kids & Teens is planning to move forward with its summer camp program, too. Clem says RAD Camp will stick to their remote model for now.
“Until we have a clearer picture of what’s to come this year, RAD Club is available each week and is a great touchpoint for our campers who miss their friends, and getting that interaction,” Clem says.
Endless Sun Surf School is preparing for a busy season of private surf lessons. Bionerds is planning to push forward as well.
“Science has given us vaccines that hopefully will bring a little of the previous normalcy back to all of us,” Dizon says. “We plan to keep doing our online and in-person programs as much as we can and follow local/state health guidelines.”
by Sarah Mosqueda
(Opening Photo Courtesy of Endless Sun Surf School)