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With camps, summer programs awaiting the go-ahead, what are kids in for this summer?

Growing up in Quebec, Gaëtane Verna attended summer camps from the age of eight, eventually becoming a counsellor and section leader at Camp Kanawana, a venerable YMCA camp in the Laurentians, when she got older. 

Like many former campers, Verna has now raised two daughters who also adore their summer visits there, where she says they’ve learned independence, leadership skills and camaraderie.

“I always felt that camp was a really great place to work, to learn to work as a team, to meet new people, to be away from your parents, to be in nature [and] to function in a group setting that is different from school, that is different from home,” said Verna, now based in Toronto. 

This week, the family learned Kanawana is pulling the plug on camp for a second consecutive summer due to COVID-19. Though Verna’s elder daughter took the news in stride, her 15-year-old is really disappointed she can’t reconnect with her friends at camp.

With the end of a tumultuous school year in sight and summer less than two months away, many families are now worrying about what will be available to kids in terms of recreational activities, learning opportunities or even child care as the pandemic continues to limit their options. 

Meanwhile, program organizers are getting ready in hopes of still reaching kids this summer.

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‘Camp was a really great place … to function in a group setting that is different from school, that is different from home,’ said camp parent Gaëtane Verna. But with the family’s annual camp cancelled for a second year due to COVID-19, she’s now among the parents worrying about what kind of summer she’ll be able to offer her teen. (Submitted by Léontyne Haché and Gaëtane Verna)

Tackling ‘social malnutrition’ in kids

Canadian camp associations are awaiting the green light from public health officials to operate this summer, keeping busy by prepping new rules, protocols and operational procedures. 

“We’re keeping positive thoughts and knowing that camps are going to play a critical, instrumental role in restoring what some have described as this social malnutrition that children have suffered over the past year,” said Jack Goodman, chair of the Ontario Camps Association COVID-19 Task Force. 

Camps offer children and teens so many benefits, he said, including skills they’re able to apply far beyond camp — from leadership to making their beds.

“Tolerance, inclusiveness, teamwork, how to lead, how to take a chance knowing [there are] safe protection and support mechanisms around you, how to trust, how to listen, how to show support for a camper or a friend or a stranger in need,” said Goodman, who owns Camp New Moon in Muskoka, Ont. 

“This is how we build a community. This is how we build a better world.”

Also, while the kids are away, the parents get a break from what can be an exhausting juggle.

“Camps … provide hundreds of thousands of children daycare opportunties. That’s an important piece that isn’t lost on a lot of parents.”

WATCH | The benefits of camp for kids and families:

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Whether it’s giving parents space and helping them learn to be apart from their kids, or allowing children room to learn and develop independence, summer camps can create opportunities for growth on both ends of the parent-child spectrum. 1:46

Modified programming 

Adaptation was key for programs that operated last year, including Frontier College’s modified summer literacy camps in Indigenous communities across Canada. With planning underway since November, they’re eyeing to improve this summer’s offering, incorporating lessons learned from 2020, like conducting training and shipping books and materials early.

“We didn’t want to — for a second — ignore this huge need,” said president Stephen Faul.

“What we’re seeing right now on a fairly broad scale is interrupted education. For people who don’t have a lot of resources in their homes or in their communities, that’s a real problem.”

In 2020, the group was able to distribute more than 13,000 books across Canada and continue summer programming that often exceeded local public health restrictions, he noted.

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A Frontier College literacy staffer distributes books in Salluit, an Inuit community in the northern Nunavik region in Quebec. (Submitted by Frontier College)

How the program looked on the ground varied for the 96 communities that participated. A small number of in-person camps operated with local counsellors, while other youngsters received biweekly learning kits at home filled with reading, math and science activities. Some teams hosted limited outdoor gatherings, while others led activities remotely, for instance broadcasting over radio or making connections via social media. 

As they did last year, this summer’s staff will also encourage caregivers — older siblings, parents, grandparents and guardians — to support their youngsters. 

“[It’s] a little bit of a changed world, where it’s more about summer learning for the whole family, not only for their primary-school age children,” said Mélanie Valcin, regional director for Quebec, Nunavut and Atlantic Canada.

“We always try to make it fun,” said Faul. “I love it when parents say they had so much fun they didn’t realize they were learning.” 

WATCH | Engaging youngsters in everyday reading, math at home:

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Helping children with their reading and numbers isn’t restricted to the classroom. Stephen Faul, president of Frontier College highlights the various ways busy parents can keep teaching light and informal. 1:10

‘A cross between a classroom and a summer camp’

Summer learning programs affiliated with schools are also a fixture of warmer weather, offering camp-like recreational parts for young learners and a targetted boost for kids who need it.

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Syrian refugee children attend H.appi Camp in Toronto in July 2016. The summer offering was geared to help young Syrian refugees acclimatize to Canadian life and prepare for school. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

“Kids can go two months without doing any reading or math related activities and, for some of them, that can be something that can have them fall — or fall further — behind,” said Scott Davies, professor and Canada Research Chair in education leadership and policy at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

Davies, a learning loss expert, has assessed primary-aged summer programs led by the Council of Ontario Directors of Education. These programs help give kids “extra time on task” and, rather than considering them “a grind,” he said, participants found the Ontario programs enjoyable.

Teachers create an experience that doesn’t replicate regular school and combine it with fun recreational components. Usually held in a school each July, the classes are typically free or close to it, capped at around 15 students and accompanied by healthy snacks and food. “If you were to see them, it would look to your eye probably as a bit of a cross between a classroom and a summer camp,” Davies said. 

In 2020, Ontario’s summer learning programs were held exclusively online for the first time. They also saw nearly 12,000 students across 71 school boards participate, more than in any other year in the initiative’s decade-long history.

These programs “will be even more essential during the summer of 2021” given the impact of COVID-19 interruptions to learning, said the Council of Ontario Directors of Education.

If a camp is open, is it safe?

If vaccinations continue to ramp up, lockdowns remain in place for long enough and we drive community transmission way down by summer, epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan says he’s optimistic camps and children’s programs can happen.

While choosing whether a program is right for one’s family is a personal decision, he offered some points to consider: 

  • Are you living in, or is the program in, a high-transmission area?
  • Are the adults involved vaccinated or eligible to be soon? “The more people in your child’s life who are vaccinated, the more protected your child,” Deonandan said.
  • What are the program’s COVID-19 protocols?

A parent can compare the program’s protocols against the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidance for youth programs and camps, he said. The recent update offers extensive recommendations, including masking indoors, holding most activities outdoors, daily screening, using rapid tests and having all eligible staffers vaccinated.  

For families on the fence, Deonandan says there’s nothing wrong with one more summer of staying close to home. 

“There are lots of things you can experience where you live,” such as museums, libraries or a vast array of online learning experiences, said the University of Ottawa health sciences professor. 

Camp might be “a little hard to simulate. But there will be gatherings in town … that you could probably navigate with some safety.”

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