Destination Day Camp

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is the ideal time for kids to romp around outdoors after having spent nearly 10 months cooped up in the classroom. To keep children active and learning throughout the months, many parents look to day camp, which takes the nurturing environment of school and injects it with a little summertime fun and outdoor play.

Day camp offers kids “a place to learn to take risks in a very safe environment,” said Renee Flax, director of program services at the New York branch of the American Camp Association. Day camp gives children the chance to build friendships, to mature and to experience everything from new sports to nature, Flax explained.

New York City offers a wealth of day camp opportunities, but with many convenient and nature-filled day camps just outside the city’s borders, parents should keep their minds open and consider a full range of options.

“The number one thing camp outside of the city offers is space,” said Sam Borek, owner and director of Woodmont Day Camp in Rockland County. Borek and his wife are former Manhattan residents and parents of two. Each summer, they welcome about 40 percent of their 350 campers from New York City, offering children ages 3 to 15 the freedom to play and learn on 50 acres of open land. The camp is only a 20-minute drive from the George Washington Bridge, but Woodmont, like many other camps outside New York City, offers campers a bus service straight from the city.

As Doug Volan can attest, taking a camp-provided bus is an easy way to reach offerings beyond the five boroughs. Volan started taking such a bus to New Rochelle’s Mount Tom Day Camp, in Westchester County, as an 8-year-old camper living in Manhattan. Today he is the camp’s owner and director. Mount Tom offers a slew of activities, from swimming and sign language to origami and art. The camp is even home to some traditional farm animals—along with some quirkier creatures: “Instead of being normal and getting a hamster and a guinea pig, [we’ll] get a chinchilla and a hedgehog,” he said. Volan says that camp goes beyond recreation to help campers build life skills in a safe, supportive, non-graded, country setting.

More rural environments also allow children to get a break from city living without going far. Rockland County’s Gate Hill Day Camp, in Stony Point, is only 25 minutes from the George Washington Bridge, but the 33-acre wooded space “makes you feel like you are further upstate,” said owner and director Josh Male. Male co-runs Gate Hill with his parents, Bob and Jennifer, both educators who bought the camp in 1989. Nearly 25 percent of its 500 campers come from the five boroughs, with many taking the camp’s buses from Manhattan to “what families in the city call ‘the country,’” Male said. City parents and children who tour the camp often get particularly excited about the pond, which is often mistaken for a lake. City visitors seem to think that “anything larger than a puddle is a lake,” he joked.

Pierce Day Camp, in Roslyn in Nassau County, is another family-run camp. Doug Pierce is the third generation of Pierces to run the camp, founded by his grandfather in 1918.

“This is family nepotism at its best,”
he said.

The coed camp, for children ages 3 to 13 years, hosts more than 1,000 campers every summer. But kids did not always come from New York City. Fifteen years ago, a former camper and counselor pushed Pierce to publicize his camp in Manhattan. Pierce finally agreed to give it a try, sending a couple of vans to pick up campers in the city. All of the vans came back filled with eager campers, and the camp now welcomes nearly 40 percent of its campers from New York City aboard the door-to-door buses.

Pierce sees firsthand the excitement and growth children experience at camp, through everything from athletics to simply sitting around the campfire and toasting s’mores with new friends. Though he encourages the idea of venturing farther into nature for a full experience, he believes that regardless of location, “Going to camp is the most important thing.”

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