It’s the tell-tale glassy stare that makes it first appearance in classrooms in April; fidgeting becomes sport, and even the most conscientious student could easily qualify for an “A” in distraction. At recess, hopeful students tilt their wistful faces upward for a whiff of a pre-summer breeze redolent of unencumbered fun. It is all this — and more — that heralds the advent of the beloved summer break.   

For students, the idea of months of freedom from books, tests and the rigors of academia is manna from heaven, for parents, the summer break becomes a complicated juggling act of balancing parental responsibilities with work; keeping young charges occupied and engaged. It is for these and other reasons that the concept of summer camp made its first appearance in the late 1800s.

According to the American Camp Association (aca.org), part of a camp’s mission building “personal competencies.” ACA believes that “These personal competencies are reflected in the ‘Four Cs’ of the camp community: compassion, contribution, commitment, and character.” Kids get an accelerated course in character-building by attending summer camp, and most experts say its benefits are as vital as they are varied.

In addition to teaching life skills kids will use throughout their lives, it’s a window into a complex, adult world; a preview of the challenges they’ll face in their careers and interpersonal relationships. Campers learn to read and respond to social cues and manage regular interactions with those of varying religions, cultures and socio-economic backgrounds — and temperaments. Camp fosters team-building and healthy competition in an atmosphere that welcomes individuality while simultaneously encouraging fellowship. Camp is often the first opportunity for some children to become leaders and feel a sense of autonomy and maturity while away from home.

Camp also keeps young, growing bodies active and encourages healthy living and eating, as outdoor events and activities are designed to engage campers of all levels and ages. Even the child who struggles can find a camp environment in which to thrive; properly equipped and staffed camps are sometimes a lifeline for the isolated, troubled, socially-awkward student who struggles to connect with peers. Parents of children on the Autism spectrum will find that today’s camps are more inclusive and better-prepared to meet the growing demands of a diverse society.

Danny Pezzotta, director of PlanetBravo Techno-tainment Camp’s (planetbravo.com) Pasadena location believes firmly in the philosophy of keeping young minds active with complex tech-themed activities and courses that stimulate critical thinking.

“It comes down to challenges and problem-solving through engaging projects,” says Pezzotta. “It stretches their minds, so it’s not just the usual summer vegetation state — they get to use their head in innovative ways. It’s really that they leave with something that they can be very proud of at the end of the week. They sign up for a course in a tech area that they aren’t usually exposed to, like virtual reality or making a 3-Dd video game, and they’re proud of what they’ve created.”

Danny’s camp is popular with young people because of its focus on exploring, creating and playing with bourgeoning technology, including popular video games. It’s often these popular games that do the most to keep young minds engaged and interested in learning.

Peter Kazanjian, owner of Camp Shi’ini for the past 16 years, says that when it comes to camp, a large part of its allure is how it differs from what schools traditionally offer. “It taps into a different part of their mind. School’s great, but, by and large, when it’s hot, it‘s good for kids to do something fun.”

Kazanjian believes his facility’s adventurous activities set his camp squarely apart from schools.

“We don’t have anything at Camp Shi’ini that you can do on the playground at school. We have horseback riding; we have a camel, archery and canoeing, treasure hunt adventures … these are the kinds of things that kids can’t do on the playground. There’s a difference between day camp and day care. We’re for adventure, and we like to do things exotic.”

When it comes to building self-esteem and confidence, “There needs to be places like this for kids in the summer to feel like they’re heroes,” says Kazanjian. “Every kid should go home feeling like a hero.”

In addition to the tried-and-true traditional camp styles of organizations like the Boys and Girl Scouts, YMCA, Boys & Girl’s Clubs, and Camp Fire programs, camps have become much more customizable, with options that help most children grow and thrive, including those with special needs. There are camps designed for kids with emotional and developmental issues, while others focus on assisting the differently-abled or physically-challenged.

Often many of these camps offer scholarships for families with less budget flexibility. There are camps for kids with specific interests, such as music, sports, technology, dance, theater, cooking, gardening, science and nature, SAT prep and other kinds of educational enrichment.

While accreditation status is an important guide in choosing the proper camp, experts say there are other, more tangible ways to ensure that you’ve chosen the proper facility for your youngster. Info on the camper-to-staff ratio, the kinds of activities your child will be participating in, what safety measures are in place should injury occur, as well as what kinds of background checks are performed on staffers, and how often. When possible, have your child tour the premises with you, paying special attention to verbal and non-verbal cues that signify interest — or a lack thereof — in the camp activities and overall program design. Understanding and respecting your child’s strengths and limitations will go a long way toward ensuring a fun-filled, educational and memorable summer.