Grown-ups Sign Up to Revisit the Summer Camp Experience

c.2004 Newhouse News Service

Fifteen campers stood in a circle, with "Hello My Name Is" tags stuck to their shirts. They introduced themselves in turn, unwittingly revealing who among them was the clown, the quiet one, the self-promoter.

There was no homesickness or separation anxiety at this first day of volleyball camp at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The campers were mostly in their 30s and 40s, with the oldest being 72.

For generations, recreational camps have been a kids' domain. But adults are clamoring for their own camps. Some grown-ups want to relive their old camping days or crave a getaway from work and family. Some hunger for adventure or hope to hone a skill.

Camp operators have responded, catering to diverse adult interests from riding horses to space exploration. The camps run on various schedules to accommodate busy adults hoping to squeeze a summer of fun into a week or even a weekend.

The George Washington program, on five consecutive evenings, attracts adults eager to learn how to play or to enhance their technique.

As head volleyball coach Jojit Coronel explained the activities in a gymnasium on campus, he advised: "When you're on the court, don't think too hard about what you're doing. Just have fun. This is adult camp. We're not playing for a gold medal."

Keri Culver, 35, of Washington, took that message to heart. She lunged. She laughed. She encouraged the others.

"There's a lot of cheering each other, which I appreciate," she said. "And the coaches are going around reinforcing technique. It's a good balance."

Marla Coleman, president of the American Camping Association, which promotes the camp experience and sets professional standards, said adults like Culver appreciate that "camp is an oasis of wholesome fun in an otherwise stressful and hectic world."

Coleman said the association, based in Martinsville, Ind., has tracked an increase in adult camps among its 2,300 accredited members, which represent 25 percent of U.S. camps -- from 170 in 1998 to 240 this year.

Nancy LaPook Diamond, president of GrownUpCamps.com, a web site that lets computer users search by interest and location, said there are about 5,000 offerings in the online database. She said that number has been growing steadily.

Cost can range from around $100 to several thousand dollars, depending on length of stay, equipment, meals and other factors. Day or evening camps often do not include lodging and are the least expensive.

"There's every kind of camp -- dancing camps, chess camps, bridge camps, tennis camps ... flying planes, racing, spy camp," said Diamond, whose company is based in Boca Raton, Fla.

Such excursions give overscheduled adults a chance to focus on a passion without committing to classes that meet over several weeks or months.

"Americans have more free time than they think, but they have it in very small chunks," said Geoffrey Godbey, professor of leisure studies at Pennsylvania State University. "Two hours is great for (watching) TV, but it's not enough for learning rock climbing."

Nor is it enough to perfect a tennis swing. Sheila Maxwell, 52, couldn't take much of a break from her responsibilities as a real estate agent in Oxford, Ohio, and owner of a local farm. So, with a friend, she attended a weekend camp in March at Ramey Tennis School in Rockport, Ind.

"I don't have a lot of time to take tennis lessons," Maxwell said. At the camp, "I got 16 hours of tennis in a weekend."

That kind of intensive practice drew Jesse Hargus of Portland, Ore., to Key Rest, a five-day Florida piano camp in St. Petersburg.

"I've been studying organ for some time and wanted to get some piano experience," said Hargus, 48. "Key Rest provided me with such a wealth of information and practical experience on the instrument."

Key Rest's director, Wendy Drexler, said she wanted to match piano instruction with relaxation, with opportunities for campers to laze around Tampa Bay and take in the cultural offerings of St. Petersburg.

"The baby boomer age, late 30s and older, for the most part, these are the folks who are trying to get away from their daily lives," Drexler said.

And it's not just the baby boomers.

"It's a great mix of people; all walks of life come to this thing," said Kevin English, director of the High Cascade Snowboard Camp, which runs adult camps in Oregon and California. "You've got your 21-year-old who's scraped up all his money to your 60-year-old orthopedic knee surgeon."

Andrea Geis, 42, of Kansas City, Mo., said she felt a sense of camaraderie at an equestrian camp at Peeper Ranch in Lenexa, Kan., which she attended twice in the past year.

Like her, the adult campers typically have come to riding horses later in life. She said she enjoys "being around people who like the same thing. I'm living out a childhood dream as an adult."

Annalisa Hall, who heads the ranch's camp, said the idea sprang from a children's camp there. She said parents would see their children having so much fun, they would ask, "What about us?"

That is often how adult camps get started, from the Adult Space Academy at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., to High Cascade's snowboarding camps.

Some adults might be trying to recapture the camping days of their youth, but others are seizing what they missed as youngsters.

"I think maybe that's part of why it's so much fun," said Steve White, 50, of Phoenix, who has snowboarded at the High Cascade Oregon camps more than a dozen times. "When I was growing up, my parents couldn't afford to send me (to camp). It's called adult camp, but we all act like kids."

May 5, 2004

(Michele M. Melendez can be contacted at michele.melendez@newhouse.com)

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