Sure, camp can help children connect with the great outdoors and flex their creative muscles. But they also learn skills such as making friends and working as a team.

What are parents really looking for in a summer camp? Opportunities for growth? Leadership lessons? A chance to make new friends?

An American Camp Association study found that “peer relationships, teamwork and social skills were key outcomes of the camp experience”—things participants can carry with them into adulthood. The group’s four C’s for the ideal camp community are compassion, contribution, commitment and character.

Those are all terrific qualities to look for in a camp. But be honest: Sometimes you’d just be happy if the kids weren’t playing video games all day.

Lucky for you, there’s a wide variety of camp opportunities available in Central Ohio, with plenty of options to build memories and also learn a little something at the same time.

Camps of old usually meant sunny days spent outdoors. That’s still the focus of Metro Parks’ programs. The park district offers traditional day camps for kids ages 6-12 through the summer at Highbanks, Homestead and Scioto Grove Metro parks and during select weeks at Blendon Woods Metro Park. There are also age-specific camps that include campers as young as 3 and as old as 15. All of the sessions are based on various themes.

“Our goal is to take our youth that are really connected to technology these days and reconnect them to what being a kid is really all about,” says Audrey Beam, camp and special events coordinator for the parks. “We make sure they’re outside the whole time.

“The sooner we can get them into the outdoors, caring about it, enjoying it, the better off our future will be.”

It starts with camps that could include outdoor exploration, games, crafts, creeking, fishing and even cookouts. Older campers might also take field trips. Beam says fun and friendship are high on the list of objectives. “The very basic core of camp is relationships,” she says. “These kids are getting to spend their day outside playing with kids they don’t necessarily go to school with. They’re meeting kids from all over the Central Ohio area, from all different backgrounds. Kids from all different walks of life coming together, creating friendships.”

Kate Shuler came across the program while visiting Scioto Grove Metro Park in 2017 and became a counselor the following summer. She’ll be returning for her third year as a counselor. “I love being outside and being around kids,” says the 22-year-old, who teaches elementary school. “I get paid to teach kids how to have a good time outside, so that’s pretty awesome.”

Youths who have aged out of the camp program but still want to be involved and are ready to take on a leadership role might be interested in becoming a junior counselor. Beam says the volunteer program started last summer with five participants. She hopes to see it expand this year. “I love camp, no matter where it is,” says Beam. “I think it’s a wonderful thing.”

Getting Creative

While the great outdoors is, well, great, inside camps also can offer an appealing mix of fun and learning.

Amy Gray has been running Camp Invention programs for more than 10 years. The weeklong sessions, developed by the National Inventors Hall of Fame in North Canton, are STEM-focused, with kids in grades K-6 learning about inventors and inventions while exploring, designing and creating.

“The lessons are written by scientists, but in a kid-friendly format,” says Gray, a teacher in the Gahanna-Jefferson Public School District. “The kids have a lot of fun and I have a lot of fun, too.”

The program’s curriculum changes each year but is always focused on achieving a common goal. Campers bring recyclable materials to build their projects and showcase them at the end of the week. This year’s program includes lessons involving flight, designing a sports facility and protecting the environment.

Jason Dick of Westerville says Camp Invention reminds him of the Olympics of the Mind competition from his school days. His three sons have attended multiple times. “We really like the hands-on aspects and that they have a finished product in the end,” he says.

Learning to be creative with everyday items is part of the fun, Gray says. “One year the kids had to make catapults to fling these little rubber ducks. So they would go to the inventors’ room and see what they could use to build the catapult. And if something was missing that they wanted, then they had to think, ‘Well, what else can I use?’ which is all part of that creative thinking process.”

“It’s the only camp my daughter will go to,” says Jessica Long of Gahanna. “She really enjoys inventing things.”

Long likes the team building and interaction among the kids. She said her son, who also attends the camp, is less interested in building but frequently references the lessons about developing a product.

“There’s really something for all different ages,” Gray says.

Simplicity is the approach of the All-Sports Camp at Bo Jackson’s Elite Sports facility in Hilliard. “They just run and play all day long,” says Aaron Conrad, director of operations. “We keep ’em moving.”

Unlike sports-specific instructional classes, which the venue also offers, the camp’s weekly sessions for boys and girls ages 5-13 are built around backyard games such as Wiffle ball, kickball, flag football and more. The camp has been a part of the facility’s summer programs since it opened four years ago, Conrad says. Counselors keep the games organized, but there’s also room for creativity, he says. “Our lessons are more caught than taught,” Conrad says. “We don’t try to overcomplicate it.”

That’s good advice, no matter which summer camp your family chooses.