Camps That Help Kids Care

Environmental health and individual fitness are the summertime focus for Northern Virginia’s youth

Environmental health and individual fitness are the summertime focus for Northern Virginia’s youth

By Susan Anspach

Fit Camps
Kids’ programs espouse the notion that happiest of campers are healthy, too

0209education_camp1For Peg, a Fairfax mother of two, it was Christmas 2006 that drove home the need for an active summer camp for her 8-year-old. “The downtime from school made him visibly restless,” she said, and prompted her to think ahead to the three months stretching out before her son at the close of the spring semester.

Over the 2006 holidays, Peg was also warned by her family pediatrician against her son’s weight, which he told her was not a healthy match for his height. She admits that she and her husband “were never shining examples of physical fitness,” and says their respective 50- and 60-hour workweeks are partially to blame. She says the admonition left words like “preadolescent obesity” and “juvenile diabetes” ringing in her ears, and prompted her to keep an eye on the family’s intake. The lessons the winter reinforced for her also led her to seek out an alternative approaches to working exercise into her son’s lifestyle.

To date, the U.S. Department of Health lists more than 12.5 million children and adolescents as overweight, equating to 17.1 percent of people who fall between the ages of 2 and 19 who are at risk for cardiovascular diseases. According to a 2006 state department of health study exploring the relationship between childhood obesity and schools, Virginia weighs in as the 25th state most plagued by adolescent obesity.

Northern Virginia has recognized the value for intervention, and its camps are filling the need for programs constructed on a philosophy of children’s wellness. When a neighboring mother steered Peg toward the Fairfax County Park Authority-organized Rec-PAC program, “it turned out to be a good fit for us, and for him, in a lot of ways.”

More than 3,000 kids participated in Rec-PAC’s weeklong theme camps last summer. According to manager Mike Bonneville, the program is for elementary-aged children in Fairfax County and Fairfax and Falls Church Cities, and uses a sliding pay scale based on the income of families who can enroll their children for any or all of the six weeks it runs.

Registration for Rec-PAC, which is in the process of expanding from having operated at six school sites to 52 in Fairfax County for 2009, opens in late spring. The program recently implemented a wellness element with the assistance of Oak Mar RECenter fitness director Kwame M. Brown. According to Brown, “They came to me looking for a fitness component to put in, and I said would do it under one condition: that I wanted to have kids learn through games, not three sets of 15 push-ups, because that’s not how kids operate. And it’s taken off from there.”

The gamut of both public and private fitness-oriented summer camps in this region has a far-reaching range of flexibility. No more are parents limited by their child’s range of athletic ability or sport preferences. Sally Nanas, co-owner of the children’s health facility Fitwize4Kids Sterling location, has been working with children ages 6 and a half through 15 since the location opening in August 2007. Fitwize’s day-camp programs cap off at 15 kids per weeklong session and strike a balance between exercise, activity fieldtrips (public pools, parks with playing fields) and nutrition lessons.

“Of course, the epidemic of childhood obesity we’re here to help with, as well,” said Nanas, whose 2009 camp rates and dates had not been set at press time. “But I would say 30 percent of our kids, maximum, are overweight, and that’s varying degrees of overweight … There are a lot of kids out there who don’t like sports, and this is something their parents can put them in that will keep them active.”

Audrey Moore RECenter fitness director Liz Ittner, who will launch her county fitness center’s Fun in Fitness camp for the first time this summer, also recognizes that not all children are motivated by the same concepts and rewards. “We’ll divide our time with racquetball and soccer games so the competitive kids can really thrive. But for the most part, this is more about learning and experiencing and less about competition.”

The program will be centered on a win-win philosophy, Ittner said, and a hands-on approach through nutrition workshops with dieticians. Fun in Fitness is a Fairfax County-wide initiative, although programs are organized by individual directors based on an expression of regional interest. Each is designed with the participants and their parents in mind. According to Ittner, “We have set it up [at Audrey Moore] a little differently than at the other sites: We did an eight-hour day instead of four or five hours so that our parents can have the whole day taken care of for their kids.”

For Ittner, however, the objectives are further reaching than simply babysitting. Her curriculum will be a sample showcase of the center’s offerings—spinning, pool work, pilates—that she designed to keep kids coming back. The five-day-a-week program will be offered two weeks per summer, and kids ages 12 and over are invited to attend either one or both.

“Parents are looking for a less sedentary, most active way to have their child going through a camp,” Ittner said. “They’re looking for more than singing songs, eating peanut butter and jelly. And there’s so much to offer in fitness these days that parents don’t even realize it.”

On the opposite end of the age spectrum are the services of Chad Mussmon, father of five and owner of The Little Gym branch locations in Ashburn, Fairfax and Gainesville. His franchise locations are for children ages 3 to 9 and offer summer sessions with pick-and-choose scheduling options. “You can sign up on a day-to-day basis, if that’s what you want,” Mussmon said. “It’s a flexible program that caters to moms who can pick a morning session, then afternoon, then another morning, if that’s what they’re looking for.”

Children attend three or five days a week for one or more of the 11 weeks that the programs are offered, and each week centers around a different theme: Dinosaur week prompts movements that mime those of Triassic times; Lights, Sirens and Badges features visits from members of police and fire departments.

Mussmon’s program, which costs $30 per three-hour session, does not stress any nutritional focus other than the snack covered in the price of camp. At that age, “it’s more about activity in a nurturing environment,” said Mussmon, citing the locations’ 5,000 square feet of play space and eight-to-one supervisor-child ratio. “For a lot of 3- through 6-year-olds, first-time campers, this fills that learning-through-play niche.”

Fun in Fitness
Audrey Moore RECenter (and various other Fairfax County sites); 8100 Braddock Road, Annandale; 703-321-7081; www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/rec/wakerec.htm
Director: Liz Ittner
Each Fairfax County RECenter that offers the week-long program is a variation on a nutrition- and activity-based theme; Audrey Moore offers an eight-hour schedule, 60 to 90 minutes of which focus on exercising different body parts through activities the facility also offers year-round.

Multiple NoVa locations; www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/recpac
Director: Mike Bonneville
Operated by the Fairfax County Park Authority, a six-week program for elementary-aged children incorporates indoor and outdoor games, sports, activity festivals and supervised play sessions with a 1-to-18 staff-to-child ratio. Scheduling options include 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. days, or 11:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. days.

The Little Gym
Multiple NoVa location; www.thelittlegym.com
Director: Chad Mussmon (for Ashburn, Fairfax and Gainesville locations)
Eleven weeks of different activity themes—beach, pirates, cheerleading, dinosaurs—keep tots ages 3 through 9 bustling in an adult-supervised environment.

Regal Center; 20921 Davenport Drive, Ste. 128, Sterling; 703-421-3481; www.fitwize4kids.com
Director: Sally Nanas
“Children tend to outgrow these roll-and-tumble place when they’re in the 6- and 7-year-old range, and can’t join adult gyms until they’re 12 or 13, or work out by themselves until they’re 16. We fill the in-between niche.”—franchise co-owner Sally Nanas

Programs with an eye toward the environment foster a care for the planet

0209education_camp2Planting seeds of environmental consciousness for children can be as simple as instilling in them a love of nature. The easiest way to do that? “Get ‘em dirty,” laughed Shawna Levins, manager of volunteer services for Fairfax County’s Spring Hill RECenter.

Levins heads up the Roots & Shoot junior volunteer program at Spring Hill, a year-round youth project chapter through which she launched two one-week pilot day camps for 9- through 12-year-olds in summer 2008. Roots and Shoots, a global service program for kids founded on the philosophies and principles of Jane Goodall, offers environmental campaign and volunteer opportunities through a number of its Northern Virginia branches. The camp at the Spring Hill RECenter, she explained, serves as a sort of gateway to other Roots and Shoots initiatives, since children do not have to already belong to the program to attend.

“It was just a huge success,” attested Levins, who researched other environmental camps around the globe for a year prior to the first session. “Just an overwhelming success in terms of feedback we received from parents and kids, both.”

Levins suspects parents in Northern Virginia like the idea of enrolling their children in such programs because “we’re such a culturally rich area. Parents want their kids to appreciate it. It sets a standard for the rest of their lives when they learn what it means to give back.”

According to Levins, though, for kids, it’s the hands-on elements that make those lessons stick. With last summer’s guest raptor-handler, “the kids just got very engaged with the physical animals there.” And when an environmental worker visited to speak on about the impact of litter on local watersheds, “once they understood what contaminates water, [the children] were so gung-ho about cleaning up their environment … Almost all of them touched on the feeling that they got, the gratification they got by doing good.

“That right there, for me, made the camp a success.”

Because of the positive responses from program participants and parents she received in 2008, Levins said she expects to be able to double the number of weeks the camp will be offered this summer. For 2009, the half-day week rate is $170, and the full-day week program runs for $270.

Across the region in Leesburg, Rust Nature Sanctuary education coordinator Julie Gurnee oversees the Audubon Naturalist Society’s summer programs at Rust and the Broadlands Nature Center. Online registration for the camps that hosted 150 area kids last year opens Jan. 30. For 2009, the programs formerly restricted to 4- through 8-year-olds will be open to 8- through 12-year-olds, as well.

Rust’s 68 acres tender a bounty of nature trails, species of wildlife, pond-side clearings, meadow space and hushed forested reserves. The Broadlands Nature Center is home to wildlife native to the surrounding woods and fields and offers opportunities to get up close with animals in a safe environment.

“I see a lot of kids who, when they’re outside, it’s [for the purposes of] very structured sports,” Gurnee said, “whereas these camps give them a little more freedom. I have kids tell me they’ve never been out in the woods before. We saw an owl one year, and some of the kids said, ‘What’s an owl?’”

Camp classes taught by environmental educators at a student-teacher ratio of eight to one fall within a price bracket of $140 to $230 and adopt a hands-on approach to outdoor learning through week-long half-day and full-day programs from June 22 through Aug. 21. At Rust, the vast bulk of camp time is spent outdoors; the backup indoor facility is mostly reserved for cases of inclement weather. “In general, we’re trying to expose these kids to nature, get them to feel comfortable with nature, get them to fall in love with nature,” said Gurnee, who cited a 50 percent increase in participants in 2008. “When they’re young like that, that’s a really good time to get them started.”

For that reason, the Audubon programs are geared not only toward an appreciation of nature, but also a proactive environmental awareness. “Throughout our camps, we make all the kids bring their own water bottles and compost their leftovers,” Gurnee cited. “Composting, recycling, we’re getting them in those habits. We instill a respect for nature and wildlife and try to get them to turn off lights and AC, to give them that push … We walk away with very little waste from camp.”

Audubon Naturalist Society at Rust Sanctuary and Broadlands Nature Center
802 Children’s Center Road. Leesburg; 21907 Claiborne Parkway, Broadlands; 703-669-0000; www.audubonnaturalist.org
Director: Julie Gurnee
A curriculum of week-long programs changes yearly, keeping returning campers engaged and eager to learn. The 2009 lineup includes Dirt, Worms and Other Ickys; Nature in Disguise; Home Sweet Home; Native American Life; and Wet and Wild.

Roots and Shoots Camp at Spring Hill RECenter
1239 Spring Hill Road, McLean; 703-827-0989
Director: Shawna Levins
Still basking in the success of its 2008 pilot program, Spring Hill’s camp is a summertime component of a Jane Goodall-inspired global eco-awareness youth project.

(February 2009)

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