If I tell you about one of my and my husband’s biggest summer-camp blunders, will you hold our secret between your palms gently and without judgment? Do you promise to forget what duds we were – taking only the lesson inherent in it to save yourself from falling into the same pit?
It was the peak of summer camp in Los Angeles, and my husband and I were busy working while our son, who was 8, was having the time of his life at summer camp. While his parents slogged away in too-cold offices, he splashed in pools, made new friends though dodgeball and screamed his head off at adventure parks. One week, his camp pulled off two field trips – one to a movie theater, another to one of those squeal-worthy water parks. The exact locale is foggy now because I’ve tried to block it out, along with the shame.
Oh, I thought we were prepared. Swim trunks, sunscreen, bottled water, lunch and snack money? Check. Extra money to blow on some overpriced plastic toy that would be broken and discarded in a matter of days? Check. Flip-flops? Well, that’s where we flopped. My son greeted me at pick-up time with a shriek: “You forgot my shower shoes and I couldn’t wear my sneakers. I had to walk on the hot cement with bare feet! It was so hot, Mommy. So hot!”
You will not make this mistake, dear reader. You have been reading L.A. Parent’s monthly series on summer-camp readiness, which means your child will be fully prepared to embrace camp field-trip fun. Just heed the advice I gathered from local experts.
The role of field trips
Experts credit field trips – to cultural sites, anyway – with exposing kids to the arts, culture and history, and with boosting memory and critical-thinking skills. And, of course, they can be fun. But how many field trips did your kids take this school year? In many schools, budget cuts mean fewer class excursions.
“I think the most important thing about field trips is probably to get kids out of the square walls of the classroom,” says Betty Sedor, director of community education at El Camino College. Part of her role includes overseeing Kids College summer camps for grades 1 through 12. “Field trips help kids immerse themselves in different cultures and experiences,” Sedor says. 0“They just give you a sense of awe and wonder and an opportunity to get out of your space. It’s really critical to learning and figuring out who you are.”
Judy Mandl, elementary assistant principal at Village Christian School in Sun Valley, which runs a traditional day camp that offers two field trips each week, echoes Sedor’s sentiments. “It’s great to give your child experiences that will enrich them,” she says. “Some parents are not real adventurers, so sending their child to a summer camp that offers field trips is a great avenue for your child to have some experience that perhaps you wouldn’t have with them.”
At the Palisades-Malibu YMCA, Executive Director Jim Ki
rtley is bringing back summer camp field trips after an eight-year hiatus. The field trips will be built around the camp’s social-responsibility theme this summer, filled with age-appropriate learning activities to help combat summer-learning loss. “You can use field trips to stimulate students’ minds without going to school,” he says. “Even if your camp is going to theme parks, [counselors] can create different science, engineering, technology and math lessons around that. [They] can talk about speed and inertia and things like that, but [they] have to be intentional about it and not just riding rides with the kids.”
There are many ways to ‘field trip’
Kirtley’s campers will also find STEM and history lessons woven into the Y’s eight field trips. “It’s all about nature, science and exploratory enrichment,” he says. “We will go to Battleship Iowa for a history piece. The [California] Science Center, Discovery Cube, the Santa Monica Aquarium for science.”
Building friendships and personal growth are the focus during “extended excursions” for girls in grades 6-8 from Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles’ Marine Landing camp. Summer camp participants don’t have to be Girl Scouts, but do participate in Girl Scout traditions. “Marine Landing is a really, really unique beach,” says Devin Niebrugge, the Girl Scouts’ Marine Landing camp director and program specialist. “The girls work up to the privilege of getting to go on extended excursions.”
For the excursions, which last about half a day, the counselors and girls kayak to one of the nearby beaches. They sing camp songs (“Little Red Wagon” and “Princess Pat” are faves) and finally, after paddling with all their might, pull the kayaks on shore of the destination beach, climb out and set up their territory on the sand. They spend the afternoon swimming, playing games and relays – bonding. “You see kids come in on that first day and by the day that they leave, you see real growth,” Niebrugge says.
At Village Christian, Mandl says field trips are built around a sense of fun and exploration. “This summer, we are going to Chuck E. Cheese’s, the California Science Center, Medieval Times, the Hart Museum …. We try to have enough of a variety so that something will appeal to everyone.”
El Camino’s Kids College boasts a plethora of camp workshop themes that include sports and traditional academic workshops, but also stand-up comedy, animation, sports, poetry, dance, music, drone flying with photography, a maker’s workshop and a camp to celebrate and provide safe space for LGBTQ teens. Sedor uses the college campus for “internal field trips” – to the planetarium, stadium, recital hall or soccer field – but some workshops also come with trips beyond campus borders to art, science and natural spaces.
For the “STEAM Color-Light Theory & Tile Making Camp: Fire It Up!”, for instance, students will visit Native Tile & Ceramics in Torrance to explore concepts of science, math and art. “They will learn about color theory and the chemistry involved in creating tiles,” says Sedor. The stand-up comedy workshop will head to The Clown House in Downtown L.A. to perform what they’ve learned in camp. A camp workshop on sound and architecture will visit Walt Disney Concert Hall and work with DJs and an architect to explore the science of sound. Camp Lightbulb, the LGBTQ camp, will venture to the beach for bonfires, surfing and skating.
“There’s already a sense of wonder about being on our college campus, [but] taking them off campus is also aligned with our mission of serious summer fun and inspiring imagination,” Sedor says. “We’re trying to make field trips that are transformative.”
Send adventurers off well-prepared
As Dr. Seuss schooled us: “It is fun to have fun, but you have to know how.” And the freewheeling fun of field trips depends heavily on well-oiled behind-the-scenes machinations. Summer camp organizers run down a list of items you need to send your child off with for field trip days: a sack lunch (or lunch money), bottled water, camp t-shirt, sunscreen, money for souvenirs (if appropriate). If a pool, beach or water park is the destination, add swimwear, a towel and flip-flops or some variation of water-friendly shoes.
Watch out for unique instructions, though. At the Girl Scouts’ Marine Landing camp, closed-toe shoes are required for field trip days. While most of the camp finds the girls running around in flip flops, on excursion days, they have to wear boating shoes that cover their feet, Niebrugge says.
Mandl advises parents to also send their kids with good advice. “I would encourage parents to instruct their students to make wise choices, to listen to adults and to look for how they can be a friend,” she says. “Remind students of what their job is. It’s a given that kids are going to have fun, and if parents can [instill] the basics and make sure they’re prepared, it sets students up for success.”
Remind your kids that good citizenship extends beyond showing kindness and respect to fellow students and counselors. They need to think about the facility they’re visiting; they need to remember that they are guests. Or, as many a grandmother has said: “Act like you’ve got good home training.” Kirtley urges parents to cut down on the amount of waste kids might bring to an outing by packing lunches consciously. “Try to keep the amount of trash that your lunch is going to create to a minimum so that we’re not overburdening the site that we go to,” he says.
Remember to ask about special accommodations, if needed. Your camp should be able to provide this information about the sites it will visit for field trips, and you can also check a venue’s website to see if more information on accessibility is listed.
And if you’re concerned about safety, talk to your camp about the precautions it takes. From carefully screened bus and van drivers to multiple head counts, medical forms to neon camp t-shirts, first-aid kits to finger-printed staff and small student-to-counselor ratios to back-up plans, field trip organizers say they try to cover all areas. “Even though they’re safe with us, I get it. As a parent you want to know exactly where your kid is and for how long,” Sedor says. “Staff goes through rigorous training each summer. We always think ahead as much as possible, and communication with parents is key. If a van breaks down, we would send another van to pick them up, but also let parents know, ‘Hey, we’re going to be late getting back to campus.’”
In addition to looking out for students, camp organizers say counselors are trained to pay keen attention to their environment. “It’s kind of a like a Secret Service scan thing,” says Kirtley. “While watching the children, you’re watching the people around them. It’s stressful, but we take care of the stressful things so that the kids can have fun.”
Nevertheless, follow your (and your child’s) gut, says Mandl, who urges parents to visit camps to determine whether they feel comfortable entrusting the staff with their child for an off-site trip. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” she says. “If you don’t feel safe and assured, I wouldn’t send my child there. Our field trips are optional. I will never talk parents into sending their child on a field trip.”
Mandl also urges parents to call upon their knowledge of their own child in making field trip decisions. “Are they prone to wander? Do new places kind of throw them out of whack? Are they afraid of [costumed] characters?” she asks. “Know what your child is interested in. If your child likes to sit and read in the shade, probably the trampoline field trip wouldn’t be the best fit.”
For the hesitant child, take it slow, she says. Test the waters by taking family field trips, then find ways to encourage your child to explore the larger world with peers and counselors at a summer camp in Los Angeles you both trust. The bus will be waiting.
Cassandra Lane is managing editor of L.A. Parent.