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VOL. 41 | NO. 11 | Friday, March 17, 2017

Unplugged and back to nature

Summer camps give children a break from modern ‘conveniences’

By Hollie Deese

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Unless you’re sending your child to computer or STEM camp, expect the summer fun to be an unplugged experience. Or, as much as your kid can stand.

No “electronics,’’ says Olivia Ramsey of the philosophy at Barefoot Republic Camp and Retreat Center. The camp doesn’t “have the things that normally would break down the barriers of people saying, ‘Well, I have this and you don’t.’’

The CEO of the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee chimes in with a similar theme. “In today’s age, the 21st Century girl not only needs to have access to technology, but she also needs to have access to nature,’’ adds Agenia Clark.

“There are just so many different experiences that you can learn from being away from the digitized space, and being in a space where you are dependent on yourself,’’ she says.

Kathryn Compeau, director of Deer Run Camps and Retreats in Thompson’s Station, sees summer camp as a positive alternative to a child’s tech-driven world.

“I think it’s just a way to really unplug and get a different kind of experience,” she says. “Especially in this day and age, with technology and social media, we’re so consumed that we kind of forget to go outside and enjoy creation and just have experiences with other people.”

Camp Davis at the Gordon Jewish Community Center has taken the outdoors experience seriously and for a long time. Their motto: “Getting kids dirty since 1930.’’

Of course, there are plenty of tech camps and scientific experiences in the Middle Tennessee area being offered in quality academic environments such as the Adventure Science Museum, the Steam Society Technology Camp, Dyer Observatory, Belmont and Vanderbilt universities.

Those programs also focus on building the camper’s independence, confidence and character. They push the youngsters out of the lab, too. Sumner Academy’s Take Flight camp offers Mad Scientist and Nature Week this summer.

But, if you want your child to really have an almost tech-free summer, here are some of the places to consider that should have spots available.

Outdoor adventures

This past summer was Deer Run’s 10th camp, though the property was bought in 1998 as a retreat center with tent camping. There were 48 children that first summer of camp.

In 2016, they had almost 3,000 on their 100-acre facility, which might soon accommodate even more if they can get an adjoining 60 acres for next summer.

The land is owned by the camp founder David Gibson and wife Liz, who built the Christian camp from the ground up.

“We like to identify ourselves as an outdoor adventure camp, so the kids are outside most of the time, other than sleeping and eating, basically,” Compeau says.

The camp offers high ropes, a climbing tower, zip lines, low ropes, paintball, archery and BB guns. Basically, the kind of experiences today’s kids typically aren’t exposed to on a day-to-day basis.

“A lot of the experience for them is different, the kind of adventure rec elements that they wouldn’t get a chance to do at school or at home,” Compeau adds.

Barefoot at the Farm

Barefoot Republic Camp and Retreat Center, a camp that is now in its 16th year, began with an overnight camp, and in just the past five years has added the day camp program, says Ramsey, marketing and communications director.

The overnight camp facility is in Scottsville, Kentucky, about an hour and 15 minutes northeast of Nashville. Their day camp locations are across Middle Tennessee at different church locations.

In addition, they host two weeks each year for church-based camp at singer Amy Grant’s 450-acre Franklin farm, Barefoot at the Farm.

“A few years ago she sent her daughter to our overnight camp,” Ramsey says. “After coming up and seeing the end-of-the-week program and the experience her daughter had, she met with our founder, Tommy Rhodes, and just started connecting with him.

“She said that she had property that she felt like she was supposed to offer to us to use two weeks out of the summer.”

This will be the third summer at Grant’s farm, where about 225 day campers will participate each of the two weeks.

There’s a large barn for general session, worship and Bible in the mornings. After that the kids are outside almost all day participating in horseback, fishing, archery, soccer, football, visual arts and self-propelled tree climbing.

“It’s a little bit outdoorsy, more like a traditional overnight camp setting,” Ramsey says. “A big camp for the younger kids.”

This summer Republic will have 2,500 kids between their overnight and day camps. Republic offers family camps throughout the year and a winter camp as well. This is also their third summer for their California program, a one-week overnight camp in California for junior and senior high kids.

Republic’s day camps are for incoming kindergarten through sixth grade. The overnight camps are for incoming third through 12th grades.

“We have kids who live in the city in Nashville and come to the outdoor Barefoot at the Farm, but then we also have kids that come to our normal overnight camp who maybe have never been camping before or are just experiencing things for the first time, whether it be the zipline or the rock-climbing wall or going tubing out on the boat,” Ramsey explains. The overnight camp is on Barren River Lake in Scottsville.

‘Social dynamics’

There are four Girl Scout camps in Middle Tennessee, with two of them the centerpiece of their experiences for girls. One is 450-acre Camp Holloway in Westmoreland and the 800-acre Camp Sycamore Hills in Ashland City.

“It is amazing when you put these girls in a setting like these camps, that they can take the time and learn about themselves. That’s important.”

During the summer, the Girl Scouts will serve as many as 1,500 girls just in residential camp, which doesn’t include all of the children who participate in year-round weekend camp experiences.

Clark says a day at Camp Sycamore Hills starts under the singing tree before breakfast in the lodge. Then it is a walk down to the state-of-the-art equestrian center for a trail ride. After lunch, there’s swimming, canoeing, archery or arts and crafts. It’s all about girls learning about themselves by learning new skills.

“In girl scouting our whole mission is to help a girl to develop confidence, character and courage. And there is no easier place to do that than in the outdoors.”

Laura Johnson, CEO of Leadership Academy, says the ultimate goal is to connect people with the outdoors.

“There’s not a lot of spaces in kids’ lives where they get to play in an unstructured way. But that unstructured, imaginative play is really where kids figure out how the world works - especially when they can do that collaboratively together.

“Those social dynamics that happen between kids, and the way that they can create their own imagination games together, is so critical to helping them with problem solving skills and being able to communicate effectively.”

Special experiences stand out

Jack Simon is the director of Camp Davis and Children’s Programming at the Gordon Jewish Community Center. Camp Davis focuses on ‘getting kids dirty since 1930’ as their motto says.

“We’re very proud of that,” Simon points out. “Our camp has actually been on our site longer than the center has been on the site.”

It’s a 52-acre facility that also hosts the Jewish Community Center, the full-service community center that offers early childhood programming, fitness, aquatics, wellness programs, as well as art and community activities.

“Our summer program takes all of that fun stuff and moves it outside,” he adds.

They average about 120 kids a week for each of the eight weeks of camp and are always looking to grow.

The camp is divided into two main tracks, which are then divided into individual tracks. There’s the traditional camp where kids are split up by age groups and rotate curriculum among five core curriculum subjects: sports, art, music, nature and Israeli culture.

The specialty tracks focus on one thing in the morning, and each week there are three specialty tracks that are offered – one in sports, one called a brain builder, and one that’s focused on arts.

Every week of camp has its own theme based in Jewish values, too. Those themes include loving all of God’s creatures, which is animal week.

For international week they learn the concept of b’tzelem elohim, the idea that all human beings from all parts of the world are created with a divine image.

“It’s these themes that are rooted in Judaism but have very universal applications,” Simon says. “The most positive feedback we get on those are from our non-Jewish campers and families, which is really great.”

Like any program of the JCC, Camp Davis is open to families of all backgrounds, denominations and socioeconomic status.

“As long as you are open to the ideas that all human beings are created equal and there’s beauty in everything, then you’re more than welcome to come join us,” Simon explains.

“We’re very proud of our Jewish values and our Jewish history because we believe that it presents these universal ideas such as treat your neighbor with respect, about the importance of taking care of the environment, about the importance of taking care of your body, about working together as a team, these are all things that we pull from our tradition but can be applied today.”

Equal playing field

Republic provides scholarships to half its campers. This summer it is looking to give aid, either partial or full, to 1,250 campers for a total $600,000. Money is raised via donors and fundraisers.

“That’s one of the reasons Barefoot was started,” Ramsey adds. “Our founder, Tommy Rhodes, grew up in a single-parent household and never got a chance to go to camp. He experienced camp for the first time at 19 by being a counselor in college.”

Rhodes’ friend invited him to come work as a tennis instructor, and his life was changed during that summer. He had a dream to make camp something every kid could experience whether they could afford it or not. It results in kids connecting on deeper levels without distractions.

“Everyone is on an equal playing field when they come to Barefoot. They all get to experience the same things and have the same things given to them. We just try to make that available to everyone because it shouldn’t be a status symbol to be able to experience things like that and make friendships that last beyond the summer.”

In fact, for some kids camp is an escape from some serious life circumstances. One family has ten children who are able to attend Barefoot Republic after their mother escaped an abusive relationship that put them all in danger.

“We like to bring kids together from all walks of life,” Ramsey says. “Part of Barefoot is reconciling people together that maybe wouldn’t necessarily interact with each other on a normal, everyday basis.

“Whether that’s racially, culturally or socio-economically, we try to band diverse groups of campers together to experience camp and help them to see that even though the world may say that they aren’t alike, teaching them that the way that God sees them and the way that they are made, that they have more in common with people different than them than they would think.”

Life skills

Polly Grammer has been teaching horseback riding at the 40-acre Peachtree Farms for 30 years.

With a single focus on riding, campers get to work with professionals certified with the Certified Horsemanship Association and United States Pony Club. Campers are as young as 4-years old, and are learning skills like posting and steering correctly from the beginning.

“Horses build such life skills,” Grammer says. “And those skills translate across all abilities. They give kids so much confidence.

“We have kids with different disabilities that can’t be on a team, but they can sure ride a horse.”

Clark says outdoor experiences are a part of leadership development, especially when girls have the opportunity to thrive among other girls.

“The research has shown, time and time again, that single-gender environments, whether it’s for a boy or for a girl, that the children usually do thrive as far as their developmental skills, as far as their academic skills,” Clark says.

“They thrive at a higher rate and pace in a single gender environment. And, that’s what we offer. We offer an opportunity for a girl to shine in this environment.”

The JCC’s Simon agrees that unstructured experiences are incredibly important to a child’s growth.

“So many kids are being told what to do and how to do it. I’m not saying that school’s not important because we know school’s very important, but those informal growth opportunities are just as, if not more so, important,” he says.

“Camp gives a child an opportunity to learn new things about themselves, to experience new obstacles, to try things in a safe environment they wouldn’t necessarily have,’’ Simon says.

“It gives them the opportunity to be in a completely different environment, to be a little uncomfortable and to know that it’s going to be okay.

“When it’s 100 degrees outside and you’re sweating and you’re hot, that first day is going to be like, ‘Wow, what am I doing here?’ By day three, when you realize you are sweating, you just go get a water balloon, that’s an invaluable lesson – for the kids to accept that something is challenging and then go about dealing with it.”