When Ezra Thomas was 10 years old, he spent a week at Maine Robotics Camp, a series of statewide summer camps for youth aged 9 to 16, that provides fun, hand-on activities centered around science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
At first Thomas, an Auburn native, was skeptical that he’d enjoy it — summer camp was something he felt certain he would not like at all. But by the end of the week, Thomas became a believer.
“It was the first time I was exposed to engineering as a topic. It was the push I needed to really get into it,” said Thomas, now a 19-year-old freshman electrical engineering major at Merrimack College in Massachusetts. “I made friends with people I’d never have met otherwise… I don’t think I would have gone to any kind of camp otherwise. By the end of the first week I asked my parents to send me back for a second week.”
Thomas attended camp for three summers, was a counselor-in-training for one, and since age 14 has spent part of the summer as a counselor for various Maine Robotics Camps around the state. He’ll go back again this summer.
There are countless stories out there about young people for whom summer camp was a life-changing experience, whether it was a full summer spent at a sleepaway camp doing traditional activities such as boating and swimming, or a week or two spent immersed in anything from musical theater to rock climbing to marine biology.
“A lot of these camps fill a special niche for lots of different areas of interest for campers,” said Ron Hall, executive director of Maine Summer Camps, part of the Maine Youth Camping Foundation, and previously director of Camp O-at-ka in Sebago. “There’s something for literally everybody. Robotics camp has been really popular. There’s magician camp. Farming camps. Pottery camp. Poetry camp. Circus camp. There’s just so much out there.”
Regardless of what your child is into — whether they’re more arts-oriented, they want to learn a skill, they want to explore nature or just use their imaginations — there’s almost certainly something out there for them.
Rebecca McNulty has for the past six years operated Dragon’s Eye Adventures, a day camp program based on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. At her camp, she offers activities structured around a week-long story arc she’s written that is drawn from world mythologies, fairy tales and historical eras. It’s equal parts storytelling, theater and live action role playing (LARP). By the end of the week, the campers have together told a fantastic story.
McNulty has worked in summer camp settings for more than 15 years, first as a camp counselor in more traditional camps, and then with Dragon’s Eye, which was first based in Massachusetts before moving to Maine in 2011. She said the opportunities for summer youth programming have grown exponentially over the years.
“I think there’s been an explosion of creativity in terms of people trying different things and offering unique experiences for young people,” she said. “The landscape here in Maine really encourages little programs to get off the ground … Maine already has this great history with summer camps, so the landscape is really fertile.”
Summer programming can also offer non-profits and for-profit businesses a way to diversify what they do. Starwalk Stable, an equestrian facility in Orono, has offered for the past decade Horse Camp, in which young horse-lovers of varying levels of riding skills not only learn to ride, but also learn animal husbandry.
“There are a lot of kids out there that just love animals and want to be around them,” said Lisa Tavau, who owns Starwalk Stable with her husband, Matt. “It’s something they are really drawn to, and they learn safety and responsibility alongside being able to be around these beautiful animals.”
Ron Hall, director of Maine Summer Camps, said that camps that teach a skill or instill a passion for science, the environment or agriculture are not only great educational experiences for a young person, but they also help to build a future for Maine’s land, both wild and cultivated.
“You look at what Maine Audubon or others like it do with its camps, and they really try to create future stewards of the environment,” said Hall. “Then you look at a place like Wolfe’s Neck Farm [in Freeport], and they are training future farmers… there’s a reason why Maine is such a hotbed for summer camps, and it’s because of the woods and mountains and lakes and coast.”
Camp also often offers a young person their first taste of independence, whether it’s because they are away from their parents for an extended period of time, or that they were the ones driving the decision to attend a particular program — or that, for the first time in their young lives, they felt accepted into a social group.
“We hear from parents all the time who say ‘I didn’t think my kid would ever fit in anywhere,’ and then they come back from camp a changed kid,” Tom Bickford, president and director of Maine Robotics, the organization that oversees Maine Robotics Camp, said. “They’re geeks. So they can come to geek camp. They can be with people who are like them.”
Ken Martin is the director of the Maine Writing Project at the University of Maine and coordinator of its Young Authors Camps, which offers week-long immersive creative writing camps occurring in seven locations across eastern and central Maine. He finds that despite it being the parents that sign their child up for a camp, it’s usually the young person that drives the decision to go to a particular camp.
“It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself in a particular thing. In most cases, it’s driven by the kid. It’s the kid that wants to do it. They want to be with other kids who want to do the same things they want to do,” said Martin. “I think that’s a big reason why we get such a phenomenal return rate at the Young Authors Camp. They keep coming back because they really enjoy it.”
For an extensive, searchable list of summer camp programs across the state, including both day camp and sleepaway camps, visit mainecamps.org.