Summer programs go beyond topics covered during school

More than the dreaded “summer slide,” some area parents worry about their bored children staring at a tablet or cellphone nonstop until the next school year begins.

For the last 25-plus years, Penn State Altoona’s Kids’ College has been an alternative, with more than 75 educational and sports camps for students entering kindergarten through ninth grade.

“What we’re trying to do is provide some camps they might not get to in school,” said Sherri McGregor, with the college’s Continuing Education office.

McGregor said the program was started by a former Penn State Altoona chancellor who had young children. Then, over the years, the two-week recreational camp grew.

Now kids have the chance to enjoy learning outside the classroom by, for example, excavating ancient Egypt, exploring animal ecosystems and using Lego bricks to build robots.

There also is a camp for kids on the autism spectrum, allowing parents to attend camp with their children if they’re not ready to attend a full-day camp on their own.

And as campers reach late middle school, McGregor said, their interests change.

“A lot of middle school children have to make a choice as they enter ninth and 10th grade about what they want to do,” she said.

Through the Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center and assistance from some professors, students entering grades 6 through 9 can attend career preparatory camps. This summer, they had the chance to explore the fields of cosmetology, dentistry and veterinary medicine, along with electronics technology and engineering.

Parent Lisa Jacobs said her daughter, Alivia, 13, has attended Kids’ College for seven or eight years, and it’s given her the opportunity to explore her varied interests.

Last week, Alivia took cosmetology and junior engineers classes, and two weeks ago she took a volleyball class. Before camp ends, Alivia also is slated to learn about veterinary medicine.

“Her goal was to be an elementary school teacher with an extra degree in special education, but she has a passion for animals. Maybe she’ll teach veterinary medicine,” Jacobs said, and Alivia’s camp experiences may help her make that decision.

“I’m going to be very cliche, but it has been one of the best things that we’ve found for her to do,” Jacobs said. “I would not want her sitting here all summer long doing nothing.”

Jacobs also said the counselors play an important role in her daughter’s experience.

“They are amazing. They’re not just sitting there – they are involved with the kids,” she said.

Several college professors and local teachers spend their summers running the camps and serving as counselors, including Logan Elementary teacher Melissa Dively.

Dively has been teaching children in kindergarten through fourth grade at Kids’ College for 10 years, having started as a counselor while she was earning her education degree.

“It’s more focused on the fun things that you don’t get to do every day in the classroom,” she said. “You can teach them and have fun at the same time. It’s just a good atmosphere.”

Students really enjoy “fun with food” camps, Dively said, because they get to play with what they eat, painting in chocolate syrup and getting to mold food with their hands.

Science camps are fun, as well, she said, because the kids are outside and can be hands-on with their tools.

“We do these rockets and … they’re as simple as a film canister, some Alka-Seltzer and some warm water. They’re the simplest thing, but the kids love them,” Dively said.

Some campers have so much fun that they are determined to come back after they’ve aged out of the program.

Altoona Area graduate Matthew Eiman, 18, attended Kids’ College for five years, he said, before returning this summer to Camp Nittany sports camp, which gives kids aged 7 to 15 the chance to try a variety of sports on a social rather than competitive level, Eiman said.

He said the camp helps foster teamwork in young kids, who might be building lifelong friendships like he did.

“When I was a camper, I made friends at Camp Nittany,” he said. “They’re people I remember and still interact with to this day.”

Eiman is enrolled in George Mason University’s honors college, where he will go this fall majoring in neuroscience with an economics minor. He said camp was a major factor in his decision to attend college, and he wants to be the kind of leader he looked up to as a kid.

“I’m kind of taking it full circle,” he said, and plans to return every summer to keep teaching. “I really do love it.”