With the summer camp season fast approaching, kids across the country will be stocking up on hiking shoes, bug spray and other necessities for adventures in the great outdoors. Thousands of others, however, will be enjoying adventures of the indoor variety: creating video games, building robots and designing Web pages.
Computer camp, as it was known to an earlier generation, just isn't what it used to be. With the booming growth of video games, the Internet and digital media, technology-minded kids have an enormous variety of things to learn at technology camps, which are often taught on the campuses of major universities.
While they tend to cost more than traditional camps — up to nearly $1,000 a week for some sleep-away courses — some parents see them as giving their kids a leg up in schools and eventually in a working world that seems to rely ever more heavily on technology. Camp administrators say enrollment up from last year, with many kids signing up for multiple sessions and recruiting their friends.
Lily Gordon, an 11-year-old girl from Berkeley, Calif., will be attending technology camp on the University of California, Berkeley campus for the third straight year. In her first two summers she learned the basics of Web design and video game creation, so this year she's moving on to creating digital videos.
"Although I do a lot of tech stuff at home and at school, I don't really get to make a video or a game. It's something fun to do," she said.
Gordon's mom, Laura Mason, a 51-year-old professor of psychology at Berkeley, says Lily does other things during the summer, particularly sports like soccer and basketball, so there's a balance of activities.
The Berkeley camp is run by iD Tech Camps, one of two major nationwide operators of technology camps. Based in Campbell, in California's Silicon Valley, the company is expecting to teach courses to 8,000 campers this year, up from 6,000 last year. Pete Ingram-Cauchi, CEO of the family-run company, which is now in its 7th year, says the programs cost $649 a week for day camps and $999 for residential camps. The programs are taught in 17 different states.
idTech's main competitor, Cybercamps, is run by the Seattle-based company Giant Campus Inc. since 1997. Weeklong programs cost $600 to $800 a week, and are offered at 37 locations across the country. David Kinard, the company's director of marketing, says enrollment this summer is expected to be about 4,100 kids, up from about 3,000 last year.
The camps keep costs in control by getting cheap or free use of the latest software from technology companies, who see the camps as a good way to build loyalty among the next wave of computer programmers.
"It's another outlet to help students become developers," says Daryll McDade, who manages a program at Microsoft Corp. that helps kids develop software. McDade says Microsoft likes the Cybercamps program because it's taught by energetic college students who are close in age to the teen-age campers.
Adobe Systems Inc. has worked with iD Tech Camps for several years, said Lisa Deakes, K-12 education marketing manager.
"It's important that kids have access to technology, especially in the summer time frame when they're away from school," she said. "We find that the kids find this an engaging and dynamic learning environment."
Ingram-Cauchi says he's often asked whether kids go to the camps and goof off all day playing video games.
"If you want to come and play video games or Web surf, you want to go to another camp," he says. "If you come here you're going to get instruction."
And while the kids are on the computers for five to six hours a day, the instructors also take them outside for activities to break up the day.
"We want them to know it's summer as well," Ingram-Cauchi says.
Peg Smith, the CEO of the American Camp Association, says that the popularity of technology camps reflects the recent growth in specialty camps offering instruction in languages, the arts or other skills.
The range of costs for typical camps remains well below what tech camps are charging. Smith says most day camps charge in the range of $250 a week, while resident camps average $440 a week and can range from $200 to $1000 a week.
Now, Smith says, rather than pack kids off for the whole summer to one summer camp, more families are opting for shorter programs and sometimes fitting in several different types of camp in one summer.
"Kids may go to a computer camp for a week and then go to a resident camp, or a language camp," Smith says.
Some kids, though, just couldn't be happier any place other than computer camp. Joe Houlton, a 16-year-old 10th grader at Edina High School in Edina, Minn., has signed up for what will be his third summer at a sleepaway tech camp run by Cybercamps at the University of Minnesota at St. Paul.
"It's my kind of environment. It's computers all day," says Houlton, who built his first computer at age 12. "You learn a lot of stuff and you make some really good friends there."
Houlton, who says he'd like to work as a computer animator or video game creator, says he made a game in one of his previous courses, and can't wait for more. There are some outdoor activities like capture the flag, but in general, he doesn't regret that he won't be spending time in the woods or paddling a canoe.
"I'm not that outdoorsy," Houlton says. "Bugs, sun ..."