The Four-Week Option

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Years ago, summer camp was typically an all-or-nothing experience: young people rushed home from school, packed their bags and said goodbye to their families for eight weeks.

But today’s kids, with their jam-packed schedules, often can’t sacrifice two months for sleepaway camp. And so more and more camps have accommodated families by offering two- and four-week options.

“There was a time that you went to camp, camp ran the schedule, that was kind of it. Today, kids have so many choices,” said Renee Flax, director of program services at American Camp Association, New York.

But the mini-sessions, still part of the full-summer schedule, can cause anxiety for some campers. Those who attend only the first four weeks can lack closure, while those who arrive four weeks into the summer can have trouble fitting in.

The shorter four-week summer camp schedule minimizes repetition, keeping things fresh.

So in the late 1980s and early 1990s, American camps began creating two distinct four-week sessions in order to consolidate the full-summer experience into one month. The program has proven very popular among American families. “The key is that all the campers arrive together and go home together,” said Jennifer DeSpagna, director of Timber Lake West, a sleepaway camp in the Catskills. Timber Lake West, one of the first four-week camps on the market, switched to the four-week program in 1988.

The agenda of the four-week session is similar to that of the summer-long camp: both consist of opening campfires, closing banquets and a full lineup of sports, arts and other activities.

The shorter schedule minimizes repetition, keeping things fresh.

“It doesn’t really get stale or tired. There is always life to the four-week program,” said Justin Dockswell, director of Camp Wicosuta, a girls’ camp that overlooks Newfound Lake in New Hampshire.

Nowadays, parents often organize multiple plans for their children during summer break. Rather than view the shorter session as a stepping stone for a longer session elsewhere, families tend to choose the short option so that they can devote the rest of the summer to specialty camps, day camps or pre-season sports training. Kids visit grandparents, spend time at family vacation homes or travel; children of divorced parents spend time with the parent they don’t live with.

For some families, four weeks is an appropriate break from their children’s year-round itinerary of school, athletics and family time. Amy Simon’s 12-year-old son Matt and her 9-year-old daughter Kate attend three-and-a-half-week sessions at Camps Cobbossee and Kippewa, brother-sister camps in southern Maine. The family didn’t consider full-summer session camps, instead allotting part of the summer for family getaways to national parks or sports.

“They also like being home,” away from the structured setting of school or camp, Simon said. “It gives them a chance to have some down time.”

Simon herself attended eight-week sessions as a child.

“It wasn’t a choice for me,” she said, explaining how her parents regarded summer camp as a form of childcare while they were at work. “Parenting was not as hands-on as it is today.”

For parents who themselves didn’t experience camp as children, sending their youngsters away for four weeks is just long enough to stomach.

“Some families think of seven weeks as a prison sentence,” said Josh Cohen, director of Camp Cobbossee. Cobbossee, once an eight-week program with a four-week option, discontinued the longer season in 2007 when attendance declined.

“There was a lot of pressure on the first-session boys to stay on because they felt they would miss something by not staying for second session,” Cohen said, which can cause tension between parent and child. “With our current program, that doesn’t happen.”

Other families choose the four-week over the eight-week sessions to trim expenses, as the shorter sessions usually cost around 40 percent less.

“Some think of it as money they can spend on a family vacation,” Cohen said.

For counselors, saying goodbye to campers four weeks into summer can
be difficult.

“The biggest guys that never thought they’d get emotional would cry,” Cohen said.

But a break midway through the summer can also rejuvenate the staff.

“It gives them the chance to be mentally prepared for the next group coming in,” said Ginger Clare, Camp Kippewa’s co-director.

In 2008, Clare and her husband and co-director, Steve Clare, transformed the traditional seven-week program of Kippewa into two distinct periods.

“The three-and-a-half-week sessions give kids time to do other things in the summer that’ll look good on their college application,” Clare said. “It’s the best of both worlds.”

Though month-long camps are the trend among families these days, Flax anticipates that there will always be a demand for full-summer sessions.

“The parents who’ve experienced them themselves will keep these eight-week camps alive,” she said.

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