Traditional Camp or Specialty Camp?

With the tremendous scope and breadth of camp programming available, choosing a camp can be overwhelming. Parents have many decisions, many of them program-related. How camps “do” a program is at the very heart of what makes each one of them unique. Asking the question: “Traditional or specialty?” isn’t necessarily going to lead your family to the camp that is the best fit. Here’s what will:


Learn a few basic definitions common in the world of summer camps and use these simple questions to frame your search and find a camp where your children can discover, explore and pursue activities they love, as well as others they will learn to love.


Definitions to Know


Traditional camps are camps that typically offer a broad range of activities. Many also provide day and overnight campers the opportunity to focus on one or a few interests while encouraging them to try a variety and core group of others. It is sometimes possible to explore an activity or interest in depth as part of a varied schedule. Just because they are called traditional camps doesn’t necessarily mean campers don’t benefit from depth of instruction and learning.


Specialty camps are camps based in day camp or resident camp settings. Popular options for specialization may include horseback riding, the arts, sports, computers, academics or travel. Programming revolves around intensive exposure and time to pursue the specialty area.


Trip and travel programs fall under the category of specialty programming and involve exploration through active pursuits, such as biking, hiking, climbing, rafting or canoeing, or a special interest, such as the arts, academics, community service or touring. Campers in these programs typically spend more time away from camp than at the camp. Not only do campers pursue specialized interests, but they’re on the move, too.


Questions to Ask


The answers to these questions will help you to determine your family’s list of finalist camps: 


• What activities or programs are of interest to your child? Do you and the child agree? What depth and level of intensity are you looking for? Do you want an opportunity to try, to play, to advance current skills, to practice or to compete?


Where is the activity offered? Is it at a specialty camp? Or is it a specialty program at a traditional camp? Would the camp be an overnight or a day camp or both?


What is the camp philosophy with regard to specialized programming? How does the schedule support the areas of specialty? Are there opportunities to compete and if so, how important is competition? What is the average amount of time per day spent in the specialty?


• What is the goal of the specialized activity? How does it fit in with the camp’s overall program? How much can children’s skills reasonably progress given the session length and approach to teaching of the specialty? How does the program grow with the child in future summers? Are there prerequisites or required skill levels to register?


What are the qualifications of the staff who teach the specialty? What credentials, education and experience do staff members have? What safety practices and equipment are in place?


Materials to Review


Website content is quite helpful and useful. It may include downloadable materials and forms, separate areas designed for campers and parents, streaming videos, frequently asked questions, bios and photos.


Be sure to review online and print materials carefully to get a sense of how each camp’s overall program is organized and how specialization works within each program. What’s important is not only that a camp offers the specialized activity. An understanding of how the camp offers it and why it’s offered will help determine whether the camp is a potential fit for a child. How a camp’s activities fit into the rhythm of the day differs widely from camp to camp.


Further Advice


Camps are a great place to explore new trends. Traditional camp opportunities boast some of the tried and true offerings you’d expect, but they frequently also offer activities that will surprise you, reflecting current trends. For example, New England camps embraced stand up paddleboarding before many resorts and vacation destinations did. This trendy, popular activity was offered right alongside traditional camping water sports. 


The physical site and the camp staff are primary influencers of what’s offered at camp. Independent school-based day camps are in a position to use the features of the facility, such as theaters, pools, sports fields and labs. The education and experience of the camp staff influences program activities; for example, the person hired as a hiking counselor may also be a collegiate athlete. All of those factors influence what campers have the chance to learn.


Be sure to compare apples to apples. Some of your prospective camps may be specialty camps while others are specialty sessions housed at a traditional camp. Both types will come up when you use the online search tools on and Note: Camps offer recreational, instructional or competitive programming. Just make sure you’re ultimately comparing things like staff expertise and the amount of instructional time, time practicing and time performing or competing.


Many children are not yet ready to specialize. Children may not have discovered their interests nor can they predict what they’re good at. (The same holds true for many adults who pursue new activities!) Camps often offer activities that cannot easily be accessed elsewhere, putting time and energy into creating a culture where children feel inspired yet safe enough to develop and try new interests for the first time. Children can then practice and learn more throughout the session, and they’re set up to learn even more in future summers.


Traditional camps make it easy to try specialized activities for the first time. For younger campers, interest in specializing often grows out of a positive introduction to an activity.


Specialized programming provides a nice balance and complement to traditional sessions, leading to deep learning and a real sense of accomplishment for the camper. Specializing in and of itself is a real self-esteem booster. Today’s world is full of instant gratification. Specialty camps offer an experience that isn’t instant. When kids learn a new activity they cannot instantly perform, they develop an increased understanding of the value of practice.


It’s possible to sign up for both a traditional and a specialty experience in the same summer – even at the same camp. This is true at day and overnight camps. Day campers often attend camp for multiple sessions. They can pursue their interests, such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) one session and cooking, dance or photography in the next, without having to adjust to a new camp. The start and ending times stay the same as do the logistics of getting to and fro. The philosophy and rules stay the same, too, but kids get to experience different counselors and a vastly different program each session. Traditional overnight camps often offer children the chance to focus on a favorite program area for a portion of the day and also benefit from the traditional camp experience. 


Consider the intensity of the specialty. How much is too much? Conversely, does the child receive enough of this activity? If a child has an identified passion, interest, talent or skill in a sport or in the arts, specialty camps offer a focus on this activity. Campers revel in the reality that everyone in the camp community shares their intense interest. Staff members are hired for their passion, skill and ability to teach. Specialty camps where everyone is living, eating, breathing and sleeping the specialty can be an excellent immersion in the interest area.


Different specialty camps get similar results. This might be reassuring for those who are not sure what specialty to choose. Camps get similar results with very different activities. Drama camp, lacrosse camp, computer camp and sailing camp all empower their campers, building their skills and confidence. Many of the skills they learn are broad and transferable to other settings – like school! Campers learn how they can contribute uniquely to a group and what being a part of a cast, team or group really involves. Specialized programming offers chances to lead and chances to follow, and most importantly, the chance to do and be immersed in the favorite activity!


Lucy Norvell is the director of public information for the American Camp Association, New England, a 501(c)3 organization that accredits summer camps and serves as the region’s resource for families and camps in Conn., Mass., Maine, N.H., R.I., and Vt. Visit and click on the Families and Public Advice section for more information about finding the right camp for your child.

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10 Feb 2015

By Lucy Jackson Norvell