Adults try their best to create the ideal summer vacation — the perfect equilibrium between activity and relaxation — only to find it can often wind up being more stressful than just staying home. As kids, we had it down. What happened when we grew up?
Enter the family camp. Modeled after the traditional sleepaway experience, the multigenerational version is a vacation with less organizational stress — and best of all, you get to share it with your kids. Meals appear at regular intervals and cheery camp counselors whisk kids off to age-appropriate activities, leaving parents free to launch a canoe for old time's sake, or simply hobnob on a shady front porch overlooking the lake.
"Family camp can be a real relief for the cooks or the chauffeurs in the family," says Carole Blane, program director at Camp Common Ground in Starksboro. "It's also great fun for adults wishing to re-create the magic of going to camp. You get to run around barefoot, play soccer or just spend time enjoying your surroundings while your kids are being taken care of."
The laid-back, semi-structured approach appeals to harried parents seeking a real vacation, but it's the nostalgia that brings them back. Ernie Ruben, a Princeton, N.J.-based professional photographer, attended Ohana Family Camp in Fairlee like her mother before her, and has since returned with her husband, their four children, their children's spouses and eight grandchildren.
"We come back because it's a very special world that is fast disappearing," she says. "It's hard for me to believe that everyone doesn't feel the need to be connected to the natural world in the way you are while at camp."
Ruben has "a grown daughter who never takes her eyes off her computer and another daughter who is so busy she doesn't know what to do with herself," she says. At Ohana Family Camp, families swim, fish, canoe, kayak, sail, hike and sit around bonfires telling stories and roasting s'mores. Families reconvene for meals and programs during the afternoons and evenings.
It's a different pace of life — one that parents don't often get to experience alongside their children.
For kids, family camp can be a good introduction to the world of overnight camp — without the homesickness. Brooklyn-dweller Laura Tichler and her family have attended Camp Common Ground for the past four summers, which she says is helping her 9-year-old daughter acclimate to the idea of going away to camp on her own.
"I want my kids to have the experience of finding their own turf and discovering who they are independent of their parents, but my daughter isn't quite ready to attend the camp I went to as a kid," she says. "Family camp helps ease the transition."
There are two main models to choose from when evaluating a summer-camp getaway — designated family camps like Camp Common Ground and Ohana Family Camp, and kids overnight camps that run a special family session. The YMCA Camp Abnaki in North Hero offers family camp over Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, while Camp Pok-O-MacCready in the Adirondacks has a late-August session for families after younger campers have departed. One- or two-session family camps aren't inferior to their year-round counterparts — and their rates are usually far cheaper — but families should ask about the daily schedule and activities, as some are better equipped to accommodate multigenerational campers.
"It's important to choose a camp that offers a balance between active and free time, and clearly defines who the programming is for," says Lucy Jackson Norvell, New England director of public information at the American Camp Association. "Sometimes that means programming for 'a tall and a small,' and sometimes it's separate activities for kids and adults. The ability to choose is important, too — teens will participate if they decide to go on an adventure, but they don't want to have that decision made for them by an adult."
Programs at Camp Common Ground run the gamut, from making fairy houses to launching homemade boats, taking cello lessons, glassblowing, songwriting and building terraria. Professional artists, musicians and craftspeople teach many of the classes, netting parents who have an interest in woodworking or African dance.
Smart camp directors know that a successful experience caters equally to kids and their parents or grandparents alike, so staff make a special effort to keep everyone happy. At Ohana Family Camp, that means meals cooked by chefs who attended culinary school; at Camp Common Ground, you can count on local, fresh ingredients. Accommodations vary from LEED-certified eco-lodges to rustic tent platforms.
Family camp offers a chance for families to grow closer through adventures and new experiences, but regulars know it's as much about socializing as it is about honing your archery skills.
"Camps are intentional communities that meet at the same time every year, so families frequently coordinate sessions," says Norvell. "And when grandparents and parents attended camp while growing up, that friendship can lead to a long line of families growing up together."
Whether summer getaways appeal for downtime, family time or the luxury of not having to plan meals and carpool schedules, Tichler says they have a way of getting under your skin.
"You can relax in the fact that your kids are having fun and being taken care of by everyone there," she says. "When I tell people about Camp Common Ground, they always think it's a lot more kumbaya-ish than it actually is. Sure, there is an aspect of community building, but it's done in a way that would affect even the biggest cynic."