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The best summer camps for every kind of child

Denise LaRosa
February29/ 2016

The end of the school year is still a few months away, but parents are already thinking about summer camp enrollment. When it comes to keeping kids engaged and enriched during summer vacation, day camps have gotten much more specialized and sophisticated. One way to stop the dreaded summer slide—the proven loss of kids’ academic knowledge during July and August—is to enroll your children in camps celebrating their interests, talents and strengths.

As camp registrations open up this month, Kidsburgh offers an eclectic list of the best camps in Pittsburgh, featuring those to pique campers’ individual interests, from tending homeless animals to performing in a rock band and everything in between.

For the dramatic child

Give your child the chance to shine and share the spotlight with others at the Gemini Theater Camp in McKees Rocks. This camp offers children the opportunity to write and create their own theater shows, then perform their original work at the end of the camp, says Gemini Theater Executive Director Jill Jeffrey.

Image courtesy of Gemini Theater.
Image courtesy of Gemini Theater.

“We offer a different kind of theater camp from other places, allowing kids to learn about production from the very first stage of the show,” Jeffrey says.

Nickelodeon Parents’ Pick Awards recently recognized Gemini Theater Camp as the best summer camp, according to Jeffrey.

Gemini Theater camps are designed around the concept of creating from the imagination. All ideas are welcomed and considered as each student contributes to the show’s creation, from writing the story, creating props, choosing music and creating scenery art.

“Based on parent feedback, kids love attending our camps because they get to be fully immersed in the theater experience as both a creator and an actor,” says Jeffrey. “Kids really let their imagination shine and find a place where everyone’s unique qualities stand out and are accepted.”

This camp is offered various weeks during the summer for kids 4 to 17. Morning, afternoon and full-day options are available. Tuition is between $150 and $500 for the week.

For the visual artist

Katie’s Clay Studio Summer Camp in Allison Park lets kids use techniques including pottery wheel throwing, clay sculpting, glass fusion and mosaics to create visual arts projects, says studio owner Katie Petrovich.

Image courtesy of Katie's Clay Studio.
Image courtesy of Katie’s Clay Studio.

Petrovich says her studio atmosphere encourages artistic growth and personal development. “We pride ourselves on an in-depth knowledge of child development and artistic mediums — we combine these into a studio bursting at the seams with curriculum perfect for all ages, backgrounds, needs and skill levels.”

Workshops start in July and run through August on Thursday and Friday afternoons. Katie’s Clay Studio offers projects for ages 6 to 14.

“Our studio philosophy is that everyone benefits when we get muddy,” Petrovich says. “Summer workshops provide the ideal curriculum for fun and learning — all squished, rolled, squeezed and smashed into a fun day!”

For the inventive child

For future inventors, a camp that specializes in problem solving and analysis may be the key to summer enrichment disguised as bliss.

Camp Invention is a weeklong summer adventure that explores connections between science, technology, engineering and innovation, says Ashley Miller with Camp Invention.

“Children work together to seek solutions to real-world problems and sharpen critical 21st-century learning skills,” she says.

The National Inventors Hall of Fame created Camp Invention, which now offers summer camps at 16 locations throughout the Pittsburgh area. Camp Invention’s summer 2016 program puts children’s creative and innovative minds to work in a fun and hands-on experience. Activities range from sketching blueprints and clean green energy designs to creating and adopting a robotic cricket.

This camp offers various weeks and locations during the summer for first- through sixth-graders. Cost is $220.

Assemble’s STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) summer camps in Garfield are another great place for campers who are always asking “why?” to stay engaged and entertained while learning. Camp themes include StoryLab: SciFi, Mixtape Camp, Top Secret: Maker Mission and Mysteries of the Universe!

Image courtesy of Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.
Image courtesy of Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh.

And the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh’s summer camp menu gives kids a chance to explore gardening, to apply concepts in electronics, circuitry, sewing and woodworking and to explore and create art. Each weeklong interactive camp offers hands-on experiences that make learning enjoyable and meaningful.

Students ages 8 to 12 can choose from three camp experiences: Green Thumbs, Camp Create and Camp MAKESHOP. Each camp is offered various weeks in the summer and takes place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Cost is $250 for non-members and $225 for members.

For the animal lover

Give your child the opportunity to share some love with a homeless animal at Animal Friends’ summer camp in Ohio Township.

“Campers enrich the stay of our homeless dogs, cats and rabbits through their presence, and the encouragement, kindness and gifts they share with the animals,” says Dana Schultz, with Animal Friends. “Campers learn about pet body language and feelings, responsible pet care, positive-based training and how to be safe around pets.”

Image courtesy of Animal Friends.
Image courtesy of Animal Friends.

All Animal Friends’ summer camp sessions are led by certified teachers with the support of teen and adult camp counselors. Students in kindergarten through sixth grade focus on dogs, cats and rabbits, while teenagers attend a Canine Good Manners camp. “We enroll 10-12 students per session,” says Schultz. “This ensures hands-on time with the animals but also means that our sessions sell out quickly.”

Animal Friends’ camp runs from June 20th through Aug. 12th. All camp offerings are half-day sessions ranging from $65 to $130.

Image courtesy of The National Aviary.
Image courtesy of The National Aviary.

The National Aviary offers another summer camp option for young animal lovers. With the distinction of being the only aviary in the United States, this North Side gem engages campers ages 4 to 18 in close-up activities with birds such as daily care, craft-making, team games and opportunities to explore the aviary’s immersive exhibitions, says Robin Weber with the Aviary.

“National Aviary summer camps provide a unique platform to engage children in active discovery and learning about birds, their habitats and conservation,” Weber says. “Each camp provides opportunities for children to meet live birds up close, to help care for these birds by making bird diets or enrichment toys, and to discover nature through the eyes of the animals they meet.”

The National Aviary’s skilled team of educators exposes campers to the qualities that make birds such national treasures.

This camp is for students ages 4 to 18. Members of the National Aviary receive a discount. Students ages 4-5 attend half days, while older students attend full days.

For even more animal exposure, the Little Farmers Day Camp in Aliquippa, Beaver County, lets kids ages 4 to 13 get friendly with farm animals in a rural setting.

“Children are educated, entertained and amazed by everyday wonders of the farm,” says Christine McLaughlin, with Little Farmers Day Camp. “Bottle feeding and caring for baby animals, riding horses and collecting eggs from the chicken coop are such a thrill for children who do not live in the country.”

Children may return from the three-day camp with something of a green thumb, too.

“[Campers] also learn about growing fruits, vegetables and flowers and have the opportunity to bring home harvested items from the farm,” McLaughlin says. “The children learn facts about the animals, plants, pollination and sustainable living all while having fun on a beautiful 128-acre working farm.”

For the aspiring musician

Sunburst School of Music in Squirrel Hill has summer camp options for kids who dream of rocking out on stage in front of adoring fans. Four different camps cover a range of musical genres and instruction in five days.

Students ages 6 to 17 can create their own rock opera from scratch, dive deep into a David Bowie retrospective, immerse themselves in the sounds and history of reggae music or record an album in a real studio. Campers also rock out in a full feature rock band performance.

Sunburst School of Music welcomes everyone; no prior music or recording experience is necessary.

Cost is $239 for ages 6 to 8 (half day) and $399 for ages 9 to 17 (full day). Camp discounts are available.

For the always-on-the-move child

Image courtesy of the Jewish Community Center.
Image courtesy of the Jewish Community Center.

For children always on the move, the Jewish Community Center (JCC) Specialty Camps are places to let loose and learn. Circus of the Kids teaches triple trapeze, juggling and tumbling, with three performances as the grand finale. An advanced dance camp focuses on ballet, jazz, tap and lyrical dance instruction, while sporty types can polish skills in basketball, golf, karate, soccer and tennis at other summer camps, notes Meredith Brown with the JCC.

“Expert instructors and energetic staff help children to explore new interests and gain knowledge and skills,” Brown says.

In addition to the dance, sports and circus camps, the JCC offers over a dozen other one-week camps.

“[Our] free swim, gym time, and additional activities allow campers to move around and mix with friends attending other JCC Specialty Camps,” Brown says. “Great facilities including fully equipped classrooms, dance studios, gymnasiums and swimming pools provide the appropriate settings for a full and enriching day of camp.”

JCC camps are for students in grades 1 through 8. Each camp is offered various weeks in the summer. Costs range from $275 to $450.

For  the nature and space lover

This summer, The Ellis School will open its campus to boys and girls. Campers in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade will discover the continents, explore space and conquer the oceans through hands-on discovery, making learning fun and memorable for all who attend.

In addition to this fun-filled camp, The Ellis School also offers camp activities for middle-school students including scientific modeling, dance, ecology, playwriting and music. Girls entering first through seventh grade can participate in The Ellis School’s “Young Riders” equestrian camp.

Lawrenceville resident and mother Kitty Julian explains how The Ellis Summer Camp program has been an enjoyable experience for her daughter, Fiona. “It is the only camp we’ve consistently returned to each year,” Julian says. “Ellis camps are small and have a playful and informal feeling that’s distinctive from school. Campers go outside a lot to play and make new friends as they should at summer camp. Fiona came home every day excited to show off her work and full of stories about her adventures with her friends.”

Week 1 – June 13th – 17th: Lands of Discovery

Week 2 – June 20th – 24th: Space Exploration

Week 3 – June 27th – 30th: Ocean Adventures

The Ellis School’s “Young Riders” equestrian camp is offered in two one-week sessions: July 4th through 8th and/or July 11th through 15th. The cost for each week is $400 if registered before June 26th.

Denise LaRosa

Denise is a wife and mother of two girls. She graduated from Carlow University in 2008 with a Master of Education degree in elementary education. A former dancer and elementary school teacher, Denise is now a speaker, writer, mommy blogger and host of her own podcast Mom Talk with Denise LaRosa, which airs on iTunes, Stitcher Radio and Blog Talk Radio. The show is designed to motivate, inspire and inform mothers along their journey in motherhood.

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