When was the last time your child saw you do something really crazy? Something she just didn’t expect you to do – like belt out a show tune (in public), don a harness and helmet to zip through the woods or sail an arrow right into the middle of a target? Or maybe even kick back and watch the clouds for a whole afternoon?
That happens every day at family camp.
Moms and dads break out of their regular schedule – and their comfort zone – with their kids, trying out new experiences together. (And no need to post the experiences on Facebook or Snapchat; your smartphone isn’t likely to get a signal anyway.)
“That’s probably my favorite part of family camps,” says Krista Kahsen, assistant director of Huron Forest Camp CedarRidge, located on the eastern side of the state smack dab in the middle of Huron National Forest. “Seeing the adults get out of their comfort zones for their kids. They’re willing to sing the silly songs around the campfires or try some activity they’ve never done before for their kids.”
Small wonder, then, that family camps are on the rise, according to the American Camp Association. They offer a chance to explore and experience new things, helping families draw closer and have their own escape from the day-to-day routine.
Camping as a crew
Think of family camping more like vacationing at an all-inclusive resort versus roughing it in the woods. Most family camps last either a long weekend or a week, Saturday to Saturday. There are various activities to try. Meals are served in a communal dining hall and, at the end of the day, there’s singing around the campfire.
“What makes family camping unique is that families have the freedom to choose the pace that’s best for them,” says Ryan Mertz, executive director of camping services for YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit, which runs Camp Ohiyesa in Holly and Camp Nissokone up north in Oscoda. “Some families will come and have a relaxed pace and spend the afternoon reading in the hammock. Then there are other families that squeeze as much as they can into the day to hit all of the activities.”
Camp counselors are stationed at those activities to provide gear and guidance. That means moms and dads don’t need to be expert kayakers, for example, and the camp will have everything on hand and ready to go.
Camps often provide programming for kids part of the day while you’re free to explore on your own (rock climbing, anyone?). “We take your kids in the morning, so parents can go do other activities,” says David Riether, executive director at Deer Valley YMCA Family Camp in Fort Hill, Pennsylvania. “There are family-based activities in the afternoon, whether it’s a sport, a craft or hiking.”
Yet the real draw of family camping isn’t necessarily the outdoor fun, catered meals (although it’s nice not to argue over who has to do the dishes) or even appreciating the natural beauty of the surroundings. It’s all about reconnecting as a family and spending time bonding together.
“Families these days are ruled by schedules and screens, and deadlines and demands,” says Niki Roussopoulos Geisler, district executive for Camp Du Nord of the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities in Minnesota. “Family camp is the place to be where your feet are, and to really play together as a family. Life can also feel so serious at times, and family camp is a place where silliness is the expectation and singing together is the norm.”
Not a kid camp replacement
While family camping can be a good way to introduce children to sleep-away camp, that’s not its main focus.
“The majority of families who come want to get away from daily life,” explains Mertz, who’s also a father of two with another on the way. “We have a lot of opportunities to explore nature here in Michigan, with rivers, lakes and forests, but most people don’t necessarily have all the time, expertise or equipment to explore them. At family camp, we make that possible.”
Many families find the sweet spot for attending camp with their kids is between 5 to 12 years old, Mertz adds – old enough that the kids can enjoy the experience but not so old that they want to go off completely on their own.
“We recently completed a market study on family camp potential for growth,” says Geisler. “One finding that was somewhat intuitive, but still quite amazing, was that people who sent their kids to traditional overnight camp were no more likely to attend family camp than those that didn’t. But families who attended family camp were five times more likely to send their kids to traditional overnight camp than families who did not attend family camp.”
And many campers aren’t limiting the experience to mom, dad and kiddos.
“We see a lot of multi-generations coming to camp,” adds Reither, who happened to meet his wife at camp and started going with his parents to Deer Valley back in the 1970s. “I’ve seen campers ages 3 weeks old up to 94-year-olds. There’s something for everyone at camp.”
Illustration by Fan Wu