Summer camp may seem to provide two opposing choices: Kids can spend those sunny weeks shut up inside, drilling in academic skills to stay in shape for the school year, or they can kick back entirely, drop pencils for water guns and take a break from learning altogether.
At local all-girls’ camps, participants are encouraged to pick and choose the activities they’ve seen fall by the wayside during the school year.
"It’s an opportunity to make choices," said Polly Caddes, director of Casti Camp at Castilleja School in Palo Alto.
A world of girls
During the hubbub of the school year, kids who shuttle from rigorous school days to sports practice to piano lessons can be "so programmed they don’t really have a choice," Caddes said.
In their two weeks at Casti Camp, girls in grades 2-6 (or 7-9 in the Campers in Leadership Training program) select five classes from a vast array of options, encompassing everything from poetry writing to piñata crafting and geodesic dome construction. The play-based offerings balance brains, brawn and heart, and all are geared toward the girls’ expressed interests, embracing femininity without limiting girls to stereotypical pursuits.
And, critically, campers can make choices about their own experience - on the third day of camp, if a girl’s classes aren’t the right fit, she can elect to transfer. This moment provides an opportunity for growth in and of itself.
"You get these little girls who stand in front of you saying, I want to make a switch, and they’re so shy, but they run out of there excited and run to their new class," Caddes said.
The chance to speak up for themselves and act independently sparks new confidence in campers.
"You see growth in that regard throughout the two weeks," Caddes noted. "On change day, they’re a little nervous or intimidated to speak to these adults who are lined up with computers, but by the end of those two weeks they’re zipping around Castilleja’s paths and fields, looking self-directed and purposeful."
To be a camper at Casti is to be immersed in a noncompetitive, intergenerational world of girls. Many attendees return year after year, bringing together a diverse group of girls from different area schools. Their college-age counselors - sometimes former campers or Castilleja alumnae themselves - are mentors who wear many hats, whether gathering girls in the morning to sing traditional camp
songs, reading chapter books aloud beneath the trees during the daily reading time, lifeguarding at the pool or teaching the classes they themselves have designed.
"It’s inspiring to the young girls: Wow, these older girls can do so many things," Caddes said.
So inspiring, in fact, that some make the leap from one role to another - last summer, two former Casti campers who met at the camp and maintained a friendship for years, despite attending different area schools, celebrated their first year together returning as counselors.
Across town at Athena Camp, whose several locations include one at Gardner Bullis School in Los Altos Hills, campers ages 4-14 blend sports with social-emotional learning. When choosing from among Athena’s offerings, which range from the usual soccer and volleyball to yoga and self-defense, girls are encouraged to break out of the "specialize early" mindset and sample something new.
And, crucially, the love of sports and athleticism is decoupled from raw competition. While campers may be skilled athletes, their ability to be a supportive team member and effective communicator matters, too.
"We’re teaching girls how to compete and leave it on the field," said Abi Ryan, founder of Athena Camp and a longtime tennis player and coach. "And we don’t emphasize competition at all up until fifth grade," rare though that may be in the pressure-cooker of Silicon Valley childhood.
Each day is a balance of athletic, creative and character-building activities; at any given time, a camper is equally likely to be dribbling down the basketball court, hard at work on an art project focused on inner beauty, or deep in a facilitated discussion about airbrushed models or how to use social media to create positive change.
Athena coaches - mostly college-aged student athletes - are role models who not only pass along how a love of the game has benefited them, but also can speak to their own experience with the issues campers face, whether it’s body image, conflict resolution with teammates or how to be a graceful winner.
And the fact that this is a camp by girls, for girls, and about girls? That matters, Ryan said. It’s not just that girls may feel more empowered to try new sports and be themselves in an environment designed just for them - though campers’ feedback bears that out, she said - it’s also about going into high school knowing what it feels like to build a positive team with other girls.
"In our culture, girls can be so mean to each other," Ryan said. "We’re having girls learn to support each other and create a sisterhood of respect, having girls be on each other’s side."
If preteens already know what it feels like to be supported by other girls, she said, they’re more able to re-create that dynamic during a challenging adolescence.
Expanding the comfort zone
For girls who want to break a sweat and build character a little farther afield, the San Francisco-based GirlVentures offers summer outdoor adventure programs for campers in grades 6-11 who are ready to strike out beyond the Bay Area. GirlVentures leads small-group outdoor expeditions throughout the summer.
Younger girls may hike beneath the towering redwoods of Big Basin, then strap on a helmet to go rock climbing, while middle schoolers splash in kayaks through Tomales Bay and sleep under the stars. By 11th grade, expeditions ascend to the Sierra, the girls equipped with the fortitude and technical skills to attempt a summit of 14,000-foot Mount Langley.
"The challenges and opportunities provided by being outdoors are incomparable," said Taara Hoffman, executive director of GirlVentures.
When facing challenges, kids have a comfort zone, a learning zone and a panic zone, according to Hoffman.
"Our goal is to help girls expand their comfort zone," she explained, which happens when girls beat obstacles they didn’t think they could and learn to trust their own self-efficacy.
Now entering its 20th year, GirlVentures was founded by two Bay Area women who met at the Harvard School of Education, where they found a common interest in the transition that girls made in adolescence and the problem of inner courage - how girls gain it, and how and why it may be threatened as they enter young adulthood.
Campers from homes as far apart as Palo Alto and Petaluma form friendships on the expeditions, and a deliberate commitment to accessibility makes it an especially diverse group. GirlVentures offers an extensive library of everything from technical gear to basics that some families don’t stock - no long johns? No problem. Because the program also provides all transportation and food, and offers both scholarships and sliding-scale fees, it’s open to girls who otherwise might feel shut out from such an expedition.
After the intense bonding experience of two weeks in the wilderness, Hoffman said, girls form a strong sense of community, learning "how to be allies to one another, and find their individual and collective strengths."
One key element that strengthens that bond, Hoffman said, is that the expeditions are single-sex.
"They appreciate being in an environment where they say they can be themselves," she noted, "where they don’t feel the typical pressure to adhere to stereotypes when they’re around boys, of what a girl can and should act like."
And whether they’re rappelling down cliffs or having a quiet moment looking over a sprawling vista of treetops, there’s time for self-reflection. In this environment, Hoffman said, "they don’t have to pay attention to the exterior as much as they normally do. They can focus more on their inner characteristics."
Another critical element? No phones. No iPods. No personal electronics whatsoever, for the entire trip. Girls even eschew GPS to learn good old map-and-compass navigation. And, believe it or not, they come to appreciate it.
For more information on Casti Camp, visit castilleja.org/page.cfm?p=943240.
For more information on Athena Camps, visit athenacamps.com.
For more information on GirlVentures, visit girlventures.org. ✎