If packing the kids off to summer camp fills you with nostalgia for your own days around the campfire, why not go with them? More and more camps allow the whole family to join in the fun, games, and -- who knows? -- maybe even a chorus or two of Kumbaya. "You get to relive your childhood," says Jessica Tolmach Plett, a magazine advertising executive from Larchmont, N.Y., who for the past two summers has spent a week with her husband and two sons, 12 and 7, at Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park, Colo., a camp she first attended at age 15. "If you loved camp, family camp brings back all those wonderful experiences."
You have lots of camps to choose from -- including, very possibly, the one you went to or the one you have your eye on for your child. Of the 2,400 camps the American Camp Assn. accredits nationwide, 25% have programs for families, up 28% since 1998. You can start your search at Web sites sponsored by the ACA (CampParents.org) and Budget Travel magazine (budgettravelonline.com). Just as now is a good time to research camps for kids, this is also when you should be looking at family camps. "By April, many are booked," says Marla Coleman, director of Camp Echo in Burlingham, N.Y., which offers family weekends throughout the year.
Most of the programs are run by sleep-away camps for kids that open their doors -- and tents -- to families for a few weeks every summer, often after regular camp ends. Many offer traditional activities, including canoeing, horseback riding, arts and crafts, and archery. Some specialty camps have family sessions, too. During two week-long periods in August, the Cazadero Performing Arts Camp in Cazadero, Calif., teaches family members to be circus acrobats and clowns and offers instruction in dance, theater, and music. Campers also get a chance to perform -- solo, in ensembles, and at the open microphone. Other specialty camps focus on foreign languages or even organic farming.
Don't expect resort-style amenities. Families often use the same facilities as regular campers. That may mean sleeping in bunks and sharing communal bathrooms. Sometimes, families are assigned separate cabins or -- in the case of Cheley Colorado Camps -- a Conestoga-style covered wagon outfitted with four beds.
Don't expect around-the-clock child care, either. True, many family camps offer separate counselor-led activities for children. Cazadero features "Kid City," an all-day program that includes clowning, singing, musical instruments, and "messy art," says family camp director Trina Gulliford. But for the most part, these camps emphasize family activities. "We prefer that either mom or dad do most activities with the kids," says Don Cheley, director of the Cheley Colorado Camps, which costs $375 a week for kids ages 4 to 8 and $675 for everyone else. (Cheley requires campers to be at least 4). A week at Cazadero runs about the same: $380 for 3-to-5-year-olds, $595 for 6-to-18-year-olds, and $660 for adults.
What motivates generations to go to camp together? Mom or dad may like the nostalgic experience. They may also want to give the kids a taste of camp before sending them off on their own. Regulars say they enjoy living in nature and the communal experience. During the day, families participate in group activities and eat together in a dining hall. At night they relax by the campfire and stage talent shows. "You say goodbye to the rest of the world and just spend time with your family," says Tolmach Plett. You're never too old for s'mores.
By Anne Tergesen