Science to soccer to nature: Fair's camp options dizzying And what children want may not be parents' pick


Ashley Laleker is 11 years old, and prefers studying to hiking. Her mother is concerned.

"She wants to do math and science. I don't know if I want her to do that all summer," said Suzanne Laleker, one of hundreds of parents who came to Catonsville yesterday hoping to find the right camp for their kids. "I want her to hike and go outside."

The Lalekers and others at a camp fair on the University of Maryland Baltimore County campus faced a potentially overwhelming range of choices. Science camp or soccer camp? Theater or nature? Day sessions or overnight?

There is a camp for children with attention deficit disorder, and another for children and adults with physical disabilities. Computers and gymnastics, dancing and martial arts -- even a camp where children pack a suitcase with a toothbrush and a comb for an imaginary trip to Paris, all the while learning French language and culture.

Some parents started planning for summer as early as December, said Sharon Keech, associate editor of Baltimore's Child, a family-issues newspaper that organized the fair. She said families with working parents must find day care when the school year ends, but many, remembering their own childhood years, also want their children to have some carefree summer experiences.

"Parents are looking for a good child care situation, but they want to re-create those long, lazy days," Ms. Keech said.

She could identify no hot new trends in summer camps. And, as for the wide range of activities offered, she said many parents choose to mix and match short sessions at different types of camps.

A summer outdoors was what Ms. Laleker, of Timonium, had in mind for her two daughters. But Ashley, a sixth-grader at Park School, wants to be an archaeologist and a writer, and she wants to hit the books this summer. Hiking? She groans at the mention of the word.

Still, Ms. Laleker said Ashley and 9-year-old Kaley would likely be going to Nature Camps Inc. in Monkton.

Don Webb, founder and director of Nature Camps, said children need to appreciate nature. "It's a chance to be a kid and not be in school," he said. "We have this hurried-child syndrome."

Dede Shafer, director of girls camps at Camp Susquehannock in Brackney, Pa., was more blunt. "I don't call a computer camp a camp," she said. "It's a clinic on how to use a computer."

Unlike the various day programs, Camp Susquehannock seems to be a throwback to the summer camps of literature and film. It provides campers a summer away from home. They sleep in cabins, canoe in lakes, sing and roast s'mores around campfires -- while parents shell out $3,500 per child for a seven-week season.

But for all the variety, the camps seem to have some common goals, such as nurturing self-esteem and teamwork.

"Most theater is like a team sport," said Vicki Sussman, director of the Columbia Center for Theatrical Arts, which offers summer programs for children as young as kindergarten-age. "Theater really concentrates on what makes you special and what you bring to the part. For little kids, it will really be about what makes you different and special."

More than 40 camps were represented at the fair, but organizers know some children will still want to stay home. Parents can then turn to Jennifer's Nanny Referral Service.

Said owner Jennifer Piekarski: "This is their alternative, to say, 'OK, fine. Don't go to camp.' "

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