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North Hills Monthly

Which Camp is Right for Your Child?

Apr 02, 2017 12:04PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Camp Invention

Summer camps come in all shapes and sizes. Choosing the right fit for each child can be a daunting task, given the myriad options available. When comparing length of stay, day camp or sleep-away camp, themes and overall cost, parents have a variety of factors to consider.

Helena Schaefers’ 32-year stint as teacher and then director of Language Camp at the Family Retreat Center in Cranberry Township has made her something of an expert in helping families find the right fit for their campers. Language Camp is open to children in first through ninth grade and provides a traditional camp experience; campers swim, canoe, do arts and crafts and archery, and play sports and games. They also are immersed for the week in a foreign language and culture. The 2017 camp will offer Spanish, French, Italian and German. The week-long camp offers both sleep-away and day-camp options.

“I always tell parents that they know their kids best,” Schaefers said. For children who have never slept away from home before, Schaefers suggests that parents have them try it out first by staying over at a friend’s house for a night or two. “If the child is weepy or feels homesick in that situation, I advise them to sign up for the day camp, and maybe transition into sleep-away camp the following year.” 

One bonus of Language Camp is flexibility. For children who sign up for day camp and then don’t want to leave at the end of the day, Schaefers allows parents to make the change to sleep-away camp mid-week. The same holds true for children who try overnight camp and then decide they prefer to sleep at home. For more information, check out

Another great weeklong option for kids ages four to 18 is Saltworks Young Actors Studio. Campers aged seven and older attend full-day camp, while the youngest “Saltine” campers participate for a half-day.

Rachel Smith, production manager for Saltworks Theatre Company, said that the summer camp program is unique among many drama camps because of its focus on education and fun over competitive performance.

“We focus on creating an environment where everyone is welcome and is having a good time,” Smith said. Teachers help students improve their acting skills and focus on the process over the product. While plenty of Saltworks’ participants do pursue competitive roles in other arenas, the camp is appropriate for children and teens of all skill levels and experience.

“Theater is so beneficial in terms of participating in a group experience, helping kids build confidence, developing public speaking skills and learning to express themselves,” Smith explained.

Saltworks can be a good fit for children who are hesitant to be away from their parents. “For the younger kids, we try to keep them really busy, and engage them as soon as they walk into the room,” Smith said. For older kids and teens that might have other commitments to sports and summer jobs, the camp’s 3:30 p.m. ending time provides some scheduling flexibility. To find out more about summer programs at both the Sewickley and Oakland campuses, check out

For campers interested in a weeklong day camp focused on science, technology, math and engineering (STEM) activities, Camp Invention merits attention. The national program, inspired by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, takes place in schools around the North Hills. One bonus for parents of children who are nervous about attending camp is that the camps are typically taught by local educators who teach during the academic year at the host school.

“A lot of parents and children appreciate seeing the friendly faces of teachers they already know,” explained Ashley Miller, a Camp Invention staff member. 

Another bonus is that the STEM curriculum is developed in-house by Camp Invention’s team of educators. The emphasis is on learning through hands-on activities designed to inspire ingenuity and spark creativity in the next generation of inventors. For more information, see

For the first time in the Pittsburgh area, In Tune with the Arts Studios of Gibsonia will offer a day camp at the end of July for a cappella aficionados. Studio co-owner Ryan Perrotte, a full-time music educator at Peters Township High School, is this year’s state representative to the A Cappella Education Association (AEA).

Perrotte is excited to be able to offer such an opportunity to local singers. The day camp is exceptional in that it welcomes adults as well as high school students. Middle school students may be accepted on a case-by-case basis; Perrotte said the only prerequisite is a love of singing.

The camp will incorporate song writing, live looping, beginner arranging, soloing, barbershop technique, live production, vocal percussion, choreography and using social media to enhance a music group’s public presence. Perrotte and his colleagues Mike Why (a well-known live-looper musician) and Scott Blasey (of The Clarks fame) are committed to making the camp affordable and accessible for interested singers, and hope that the intense weeklong immersion in all things a cappella will make the day camp a good fit for aspiring performers. Call 724-449-9595 or check out the In Tune with the Arts Facebook page for details.  

Whether your child is ready for sleep-away camp or seeking a great day camp experience, the local camp scene has much to offer. 

Helping with Homesickness

Helena Schaefers, director of Language Camp at the Family Retreat Center in Cranberry Township, has a number of strategies for helping children with homesickness. The Girl Scouts of Western Pennsylvania (GSWPA) organization also offers helpful guidelines.

» Give it some time. When children express their feelings of homesickness, Schaefers and the counselors often encourage them to stay just one more night—usually that’s all it takes, she said. The emotion passes, and kids become engaged in the camp activities and are glad they stayed.

» Consider a brief visit. Schaefers said that when children are feeling really homesick, she contacts parents. Some parents opt for a short visit, which sometimes helps reassure the kids. Other children have a tougher time when parents visit. She relies on parents to know what might help their own child, and said that some choose to have the child stick it out without a parental visit.

» Listen to your child. Parents and camp staff alike want each child to have a positive experience. “We don’t want kids to be miserable! We’ll work with the kids and parents to help each child adjust,” Schaefers explained. Ultimately, though, some kids are not ready for overnight camp and it is best to listen if they seem genuinely upset.

» Prepare your child. The GSWPA suggests that parents talk to campers ahead of time about things at camp that might be different from home. If possible, attend an open house event or plan a visit to walk around the grounds so that children know what to expect.

» Take along some comfort. Pack a favorite stuffed animal or family photo to take to camp. 

» Send upbeat, positive letters or emails. The GSWPA delivers mail (or email) from parents during camp, and campers are encouraged to write home if they wish. This connection helps to reassure children who may be feeling homesick, while still supporting their independence.