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The Not-So-Lazy Days of Summer: Intense Camp Culture Rules

School's out for the summer. No more getting up early and studying for final exams. It's time to be lazy and just hang, right? Think again.

Summer break is no longer two months of uninterrupted rest and relaxation. Each year, more and more kids spend their summer breaks in specialized camps that teach more than how to make a campfire. In these intensive, academic programs, students are trained in areas like computer science and marine biology. At the Sally Ride Science Camp at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, fourth graders can take advanced courses such as Intro to Engineering. Not a science person? Maybe the FUN-ancial Summer Camp in Denver is just for you. Founded by the Young Americans Bank, the program's philosophy is to "reach children with vital financial skills through hands-on relevant education." In their week long summer camps, elementary school students can learn the ins and outs of banking, budgeting, and running a business. Fifth graders can study global trade and currency.

Is this a good trend? Not always. According to psychiatrist Owen Lewis, academic concepts "have to be introduced at developmentally correct times." Courses like physics and economics are not introduced in elementary school for a reason. But that doesn't mean a student especially gifted in a certain academic area can't try to stretch their skillset. "Many times there's a kid, no matter what age, who shows very strong skills in a field and can get a lot out of a summer enrichment program," says Dr. Lewis.                                                      

While academic camps are surely not for everyone, that's still no excuse to slack off- kids are still expected to keep up schoolwork and many enroll in tutoring programs. Gordon Smith, President and Founder of Tutor Associates, a New York based tutoring company, says that the number of students who  get tutored drops off in the beginning of summer but is right back up by mid- July.

"After July Fourth, kids and parents wake up and go 'there's a school year coming again!'" Smith says. "Parents recognize there is so much pressure on their kids ten months out of the year, and try to give them a little break. But September comes quickly." Students get tutored for a variety of reasons, many who are taking standardized tests like the ICEE (Independent School Entrance Exam) for high school. According to Smith, most of the tutoring for these tests is their parents' idea.  "Kids at twelve or thirteen are not thinking that far in advance.  If they have a test in October, they don't think they have to start in August, they think they can start three days before."

Smith is familiar with the academic camps; he attended the Center for Talented Youth during the summer after his eighth grade. Students who are accepted to the program can study on college campuses around the country and take classes that cover the equivalent of a semester's worth of college material.

The increased participation raises concerns about burnout and questions about just who wants these camps—the students or the parents.

Smith says that there actually are super-motivated youngsters itching to go to these camps. "For me, I got to go on a college campus and hang out with other eighth graders. It's a lot of fun."  

Dr. Lewis agrees, as long as the student has a choice. "For someone, pursuing something academically may be exactly the thing that they want to do," he says, "most kids need hyper stimulation during the summer. They need the chance to develop friendships."

Whether it's brushing up on reading or math, Smith encourages students not to drop the ball. "Schools in the United States have long summers. Kids can't really do nothing for 12 weeks." Although textbooks and flashcards may not be traditional summer staples, they don't necessarily lead to a worse summer break. "It's a more relaxing time to study because it's not the school year. Without the stress, you can even have fun while learning." And isn't fun what summer' s all about?