The winter holidays bring plenty of cheer and fun ideas for kids, but also a two- or three-week break from school. Whether that has you scrambling for childcare, or just for a way to distract the kids from life’s many small screens, you are in luck. Because Los Angeles offers a flurry of winter camp possibilities that give kids a cool way to spend their vacation.
And they’re not just a place to park your little darlings until classes resume in January. Many connect kids with real-life skills and experiences they’re not going to find anywhere else.
With the In Crowd
Winter camps can give kids a new perspective on places like Dodger Stadium, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Natural History Museum and the L.A. Zoo.
At Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation Winter Youth Baseball Camp, kids get to tour the clubhouse, pitch in the bullpen, bat in the batting cages and get coaching in the dugout at Dodger Stadium. They spend the first day of camp practicing baseball fundamentals and getting tips from former Dodger players, according to Dodgers Foundation Senior Director of Programs and Fundraising David Brennan. But this isn’t a hardcore baseball camp. “It’s more of a baseball experience,” says Brennan. “You’re having the unique opportunity to be on the field at Dodger Stadium.”
Dodger alumni such as Kenny Landreaux, Tim Leary, Steve Yeager, Al Downing, Billy Ashley and Mickey Hatcher have worked with Dodger campers, giving them plenty to talk about when they head back to school. “At the end of camp, they might have 10 autographs on the back of their T-shirt,” Brennan says. And on the second day of camp, the outfield at Dodger Stadium is divided into four mini ball parks so the kids can play. “Some of these kids have been to a Dodger game and watched from the stands,” says Brennan, “and now they have the opportunity to pretend to be a Dodger.”
Kids also get behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum’s Adventures In Nature Camp. In an exhibit hall, campers might find themselves at an unmarked door. “It leads into a back room where our scientists are working day to day,” says Gabe Sjoberg, coordinator for public programs in the museum’s education and exhibits department. “They get to meet these museum experts.” Campers also get to see some of the many collections that aren’t on display for the public, such as the drawers and drawers of mollusks in the museum’s malacology department. “After a week of being here, they really have a sense of ownership of the space,” says Sjoberg. “They become like junior interpreters.”
At Winter Art Camp, kids explore the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the morning, before it is open to the public. “They have that time in the galleries to themselves, which is really kind of a luxury,” says Karen Satzman, the museum’s director of youth and family programs. Teaching artists guide campers through sketching, movement, games and discussion designed to help them make a personal connection with the art. “Our focus is the museum’s collection and making the collection come alive,” Satzman says.
Kids attending Los Angeles Zoo Winter Zoo Camp also get to be on site before the general public. “They go into the zoo before the zoo opens and see the animals wake up,” says Heather Shields, manager of formal programs. Camp also includes the chance to meet and talk with zoo keepers about the animals, and other unique encounters. For instance, campers might get to see a jaguar receive a special holiday treat, and learn how the treat helps enrich the animal’s play time – as this year’s winter camp is focused on how animals learn through play. “We provide special experiences that they wouldn’t get in a normal zoo visit,” says Shields.
Winter camps can also help kids build skills that they might not have the time or opportunity to work on during school.
Campers get to play improv games and create and perform their own comedy sketches at Studio LOL Comedy Camp. But while kids might be improvising an infomercial based on a four-foot screwdriver, or pretending to be a sports announcer for an Olympic spaghetti-eating competition, the days are filled with much more than zaniness. “All of the games require lots of thought and concentration,” says owner and teacher Katy Chase, who co-founded the studio with her husband.
Yes, the camp is good for building confidence in shy kids, but because kids spend lots of time writing and performing sketches together, it is also great for teaching collaboration. “It’s a team sport,” Chase says. And because campers serve as both performers and audience members, they also learn audience etiquette, impulse control and respect for their fellow performers. They have to learn to shine on stage, but be quiet back stage. “We have this great balance that has to be achieved,” says Chase. “We run a really tight ship with behavior. You have to know how to turn yourself on and off.”
Tinkerers at the reDiscover Center’s L.A. Tinkering School Winter Camp begin with a day of power tool safety training and orientation, and then do consecutively more difficult skill-building projects leading up to the Big Build, which reDiscover Center Executive Director Jonathan Markowitz Bijur says is “a massive tinkering project that incorporates the entire camp.” Big Builds have included a shadow puppet theater with popcorn stand, a superhero hangout with six-foot escape pole and robot go-cart, and a life-size mechanical Harry Potter sculpture.
But Tinkering School also teaches resilience and problem solving. “We have a failure-positive approach,” says Bijur, explaining that tinkerers are encouraged to work to the limits of their abilities and not give up. When something breaks or fails, facilitators help kids figure out what happened and find a way to fix it. “I think that’s invaluable no matter what they’re doing,” Bijur says.
Working with professional playwrights and specialists in choreography, music, sets, props, lighting and costumes to create and perform a play also builds a host of skills, and that is what campers do at Santa Monica Playhouse Create-a-Play Winter Break Theater Camp. The experience puts kids in a positive frame of mind for the return to school.
Theater camp builds self-confidence. “They’re happier. They feel better about themselves,” says Santa Monica Playhouse co-artistic director Evelyn Rudie of winter campers. This can make a big difference for a child who has been dealing with bullying or teasing. The collaborative effort also teaches kids prioritization, how to budget their time, how to be a good team member and how to take a leadership role in a group project. “All of a sudden, they don’t feel uncomfortable about raising their hand [at school],” Rudie says.
The camp tends to work for kids at both ends of the shyness/energy spectrum, who are motivated by their desire to create the play. “We find they very quickly start to lose the inhibitions on the one side of the spectrum, and start to want to learn how to focus and concentrate on the other side of the spectrum,” Rudie says.
Zoo Camp uses animals to lure kids into learning, offering hands-on afternoon activities that teach them about the creatures they observed during the morning’s adventures. Kids might play a tug-of-war game that demonstrates the impressive strength of young chimpanzees by pitting one camper against three adult counselors, or do a craft project based on an enrichment toy they saw keepers offer to one of the animals. “We might have the kids make their own dog toy to take home,” Shields says.
Looking at art during Winter Art Camp builds visual literacy skills that are essential in our increasingly visual society, and the projects kids create based on that art help build problem-solving skills that apply to many areas of learning, says LACMA’s Satzman.
And the shorter winter break – where kids aren’t staring down the prospect of an entire summer off – can help kids stay focused and take in more of the camp content, as Sjoberg has noticed during winter sessions of Adventures In Nature. “It’s just a different energy in the air,” she says. “We are a fun camp, but they are in school mode.”
One important thing that kids get to learn about during winter camp isn’t often much of a focus at school: themselves. Fashion Design Camp at The Unincorporated Life, for instance, seats campers at a table piled with magazines, where they create a “vision board” for the brand they want to build. “You’re just going to start ripping out inspiration,” says co-founder Summer Salazar.
Fashion campers learn to design a logo, create a pattern, choose fabric, sew their creations, market their brand – and even walk the catwalk – but the camp is about more than fashion. “You don’t even have to be into fashion design to sign up for one of our camps,” Salazar says. “You just have to be into something.” A budding scientist, she says, can design a cool lab coat. A young dancer can design a costume. Campers have designed everything from bathing suits to ball gowns to overalls. “It’s all about exploring each individual person,” says Salazar.
Many camps let kids explore their own interests. Create-a-Play campers, for instance, can choose to learn to make props, write songs or design costumes. And though this session of Adventures In Nature camp is focused on the Natural History Museum’s new “Mummies” exhibit, campers can also visit the Dinosaur Hall or other exhibits if they are interested. “They’re driving the ship,” says Sjoberg. “If the group is really into a topic, we’ll go in that direction.”
At Tinkering School, facilitators meet daily after camp to plan the next day – and shape the Big Build – based on what the kids are doing. “We don’t know at the beginning of the week what the kids are going to want to make, and we will follow them,” says Bijur.
LACMA’s art campers might look at David Hockney’s 20-foot-wide acrylic painting “Mulholland Drive: The Road to the Studio,” and discuss how the painting documents the artist’s daily journey from his home. But these discussions are followed by studio time where campers make art – paintings, collage, clay sculpture, prints and other media – documenting their own journeys in life. “They are in no way copying Hockney,” Satzman says.
Allowing kids this space to do things on their own, at their own direction, can also offer a break, of sorts, from the holidays themselves. Bijur considers tinkering and other winter camp pursuits a nice antidote to what he calls “the diet soda of a plastic toy out of a package” that is so much a part of kids’ holiday experience. And Satzman says it can be a good contrast to their highly directed days at school as well. “We really allow for such personal expression. We give them so much freedom,” she says. “Sometimes school can be kind of rote, and we’re not rote at all.”
Winter Camp Specifics
Los Angeles County Museum of Art Winter Art Camp
Dec. 21-24 and 28-31, ages 6-9 and 10-13, $330 per four-day workshop for members, $355 for non-members
Member prices apply to those with NexGen memberships, which are free for ages 17 and younger.
Registration: Print the form available at www.lacma.org and mail or take it to LACMA, or call 323-857-6010
Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation Winter Youth Baseball Camp
Dec. 12 and 13, ages 7-12, $450
There are groups for ages 7 and 8, 9 and 10, and 11 and 12. Camp proceeds benefit the Los Angeles Dodgers Foundation and its work in the community. The 132 available slots sell out fast.
L.A. Tinkering School Winter Camp
Dec. 21-24 and 28-31, ages 7-12, $400 per week
Los Angeles Zoo Winter Zoo Camp
Dec. 28-Jan. 1, ages 4-9, $60 per day for zoo members, $65 per day for non-members
Registration: www.lazoo.org, begins Nov. 1
Natural History Museum Adventures In Nature Camp
Jan. 4-8, grades 1-6, $300 per week (10 percent discount for museum members)
Santa Monica Playhouse Create-a-Play Winter Break Theater Camp
Dec. 26-30 and Jan. 4-8, ages 6-14, $395 per week
Registration: email email@example.com, visit www.santamonicaplayhouse.com or call 310-394-9779, ext. 3
Studio LOL Comedy Camp
Mini camps: Dec. 21-23 and 28-30, ages 6-12, $210
Full camp: Jan. 4-8, ages 8-12, $300
The Unincorporated Life Fashion Design Camp
Nov. 21, 22, 28 and 29; Nov. 23, 24, 25 and 27; Dec. 14-18; Dec. 21-24; Jan. 4-8; ages 6-12 and 13-18, $800 per session
Each instructor has only four students, and returning campers can continue working on existing brands and projects.
Registration: www.theunincorporatedlife.com, 323-655-0515
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.