Children at Interlochen Arts Camp in Michigan are doing all the usual this summer. They are taking dance and acting classes, learning to tie knots and weaving friendship bracelets. On some days, they sing campfire songs.
At Wolf Camp in rural Washington, the rhythms are also the same. Campers are still getting lessons about nature, learning about trees and birds and animal tracking. Even Super Soccer Stars, a sports camp in 13 states, is in business.
Campers are now just doing all of this from their computers, in their bedrooms and living rooms.
The seemingly endless spread of the coronavirus has entered the summer camp season. That means young people who have spent three months taking school classes on their computers are staying right there. For many American kids, camp looks just like a computer screen.
The camps are adapting by getting children in nature classes to study their sidewalk tree or the sky outside their window. On some occasions, campers all turn off the mute buttons of their videoconferences to sing songs together. At soccer camps, one new motto is “Give us five feet by five feet and we’ll turn it into a soccer field.” And when youngsters weave a friendship bracelet, they put it on their own wrist — not a fellow camper’s.
At least that is how the city-dwelling lower and middle class are doing camp. The upper middle class and the rich have made alternative arrangements, moving to rural areas and second homes and banding together with nearby families to hire private camp counselors.
Those taking summer camp online include Sebastien Lee-Rossing, 17, in Grand Rapids, Mich. He made some changes to turn his bedroom classroom into his bedroom campground when Interlochen’s theater classes started in June. He put away his school supplies and papers. He cleared off his computer’s desktop, which he said had felt very good.
“I got to delete everything,” he said. “It’s like a weight off my chest. The summer vibe’s started to set in. The mood’s more summery.”
His 15-year-old sister, Adrien, is an Interlochen camper, too, but they don’t see each other much during the day. She goes to camp down the hall, in her room. Interlochen’s online camp for high schoolers is $2,950 for three weeks, compared with about $9,000 for the normal sleep-away version.
Some regions are technically allowing camps to open for in-person attendance, but the requirements are so stringent, few are choosing to do so.
“I read the guidelines for how to reopen legally,” said Adam Simon, who runs Odyssey Teen Camp in Tolland, Mass., for youths with social anxiety. “When they started talking about sanitizing bathrooms after every time someone used it, I was like, ‘Who’s going to do that?’ We can’t do that.”
So they all sit on Zoom together most of the day.
In some ways, an unstructured summer at home is a return to an older way of parenting, said Chris Chisholm, the founder of Wolf Camp.
“It’s kind of getting kids to do what we used to do, which is go out and play, find something to do, and come back when you hear the dinner bell,” he said.
Mornings at Wolf Camp start with an hour of online instruction. Then children are sent out on a two-hour assignment in their neighborhood. There is a virtual lunch from noon to 12:30 p.m., then an online review and a show-and-tell. Families pay what they can, and Mr. Chisholm’s recommendation is from around $100 to $500, depending on their financial situation.
The campers are encouraged to find nooks outdoors to do wilderness study.
“They gave them a choice: Go sit in a tree, go sit under a tree, go sit somewhere you might be able to crawl under a bunch of stuff,” said Gabriella Ashford, a bookkeeper in Port Townsend, Wash., whose three children are doing Wolf Camp.
For Yoga Bharati, a yoga summer camp in San Jose, Calif., the hardest part of the Zoom classes is that the campers, especially the ones around age 6, run away. Excited kids do that sometimes. Bored ones, too. Once campers are offscreen, a counselor can’t do much to wrangle them.
“We have to engage the parents quite a bit,” said Ashwini Surpur, who runs the camp, which also teaches Bhagavad Gita chanting and Devanagari reading and writing. “So if children go off the camera we text the parents, because, I mean, children run away.”
Parents often become de facto counselors. For yoga camp, that means helping with poses like backbends and handstands.
“Today we learned chakrasana,” Ms. Surpur said. “It’s a hard pose, so we told the kids to call their parents over. All the inversion poses and things like that, we just want parents to be around.”
And so camps have to be engaging and fun to watch. Which means …
“We basically made the commitment to make a 10-week interactive television show,” said Karen Tingley, education director of the New York City zoo summer camps, which have been going for 40 years.
The 1,000 or so campers log on each day, and there are four synchronous streams for different age groups, she said.
“One day, we’ll go behind the scenes and meet the penguin keeper, or another day we have a live animal encounter where we’ll meet one of our animal ambassadors — a fox or a rabbit or a snake,” Ms. Tingley said. “The next day they’re doing yoga with our educational staff in our shark exhibit.”
Since no one needs a campground this summer, some are getting into the camp game for the first time. Yanky Horowitz runs Baketivity, a subscription service based in New York City that sends out baking boxes for different recipes. It has started Bake-a-Camp, a four-week summer baking journey. Around 500 campers have enrolled.
“We knew if we were going to keep the kids occupied, it had to be more than cookie making,” Mr. Horowitz said.
Each week, the baking gets harder. The campers start with simple cookies. The most advanced level is a three-layered lemon zest cake, with cream icing on top and cream puffs on the side.
Sports camps are the most challenging to replicate in apartments and bedrooms.
Before Covid-19, Super Soccer Stars had 100,000 students going through its programs annually, taught by 650 coaches.
Adam Geisler, the chief executive, has tried to reformat Super Soccer Stars for Zoom, charging $45 to $55 a month for online courses. During class, he has two coaches going at once, with one to teach and one to watch the kids and maneuver the Zoom screen. They want to make sure each child feels special and celebrated, even as a little square on a screen of many.
“We’ll do Zoom around the room,” Mr. Geisler said. “Everyone can show their big kick.”
Those in an apartment kick the air rather than a soccer ball. Still, counselors try to keep energy high.
“We’ll say: ‘OK, everybody, we’re going to unmute for two minutes. Let’s hear your scream,’” Mr. Geisler said. “And we Zoom around the room and hear from everybody.”
For more money, people can hire a private camp counselor, so Super Soccer Stars is also hosting socially distanced micro-camps in backyards for around $500 a week for one camper (more if there are more campers). The option started in the Hamptons. It has expanded to Los Angeles, Washington, parts of Massachusetts, San Diego and San Francisco. The day the option was announced, Mr. Geisler said, 500 private groups made requests.
For children without a soccer ball, Super Soccer Stars coaches are trained to teach how to make one out of T-shirts and rubber bands.
One of the parents trying to balance sports camp from an apartment is Stacy Igel, who has a 5-year-old son in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Ms. Igel, founder and creative director of the fashion line Boy Meets Girl, said her living room — which had already become a multipurpose area — was now also a soccer field. She moved the sofa to fit a net and positioned an iPad on a cardboard box so her son could see the instructor while kicking a ball around.
“The first time, he was spooked,” Ms. Igel said. “As a 5-year-old, he wasn’t on devices that much.”
As the weather warmed, they have been able to go outside. Ms. Igel props the iPad on the lawn. She has started paying for one-on-one lessons once a week, which are legal in the city so long as the instructor keeps distance and wears a mask.
“Just to have that personal contact with a real human is amazing,” Ms. Igel said. “After so many months of him being alone, I almost cried.”
But she can pay for only a day a week, and she knows they are lucky to have that.
“Zoom is a lot cheaper,” she said.