The Coolest Socially Conscious Summer Camps

At these retreats, kids are protecting endangered species, fighting discrimination and poverty, and learning how to save the world.

Broadreach Global Summer Educational Adventures. (Photo: Broadreach/Facebook)

Jun 30, 2014· 3 MIN READ
Regular TakePart contributor Holly Eagleson writes about social issues, culture, lifestyle, and food for Redbook, Marie Claire, Glamour, and others.

Summer camps used to be an excuse for parents to ship kids off for a few weeks of child-free tranquillity. Now the harmony is likely to come after kids return home, as more camps are churning out pint-size peace activists one week at a time.

A new kind of sleepaway camp is applying the friendship bracelets and s’mores treatment to social causes. It’s not all sitting around singing “Kumbaya” either. Across the country this summer, kids are diving with sharks, learning sustainable farming practices, or railing against the patriarchy one rock anthem at a time.

The American Camp Association reports that nearly half of its accredited camps have a focus on civic engagement or service learning. “Today campers can find programs focusing on peace and social justice, international cultures, foreign languages, and exchange programs,” said Peg Smith, CEO of the ACA. Many programs tend to be oriented more to camaraderie than to competition; see the New York Times report on camps with “no body talk” rules as one example.

One of the best-known camps centering on activism and social justice is Youth Empowered Action Camp. With locations in California, Oregon, and Massachusetts, YEA teaches campers from around the country how to take action on any issue that stokes their passion, from climate change to homelessness. YEA is also distinguished by its vegan menu, a draw for kids concerned about animal rights.

Know a kid who puts the social in social activism? Me to We’s Take Action Camp is his or her jam. A leadership program located on Apache Chiricahua and Tohono O’odham traditional land in Arizona, it teaches teens about domestic and international issues and also offers local volunteer opportunities. A bonus for fans of teen TV: Nina Dobrev of The Vampire Diaries is one of the organization’s celebrity ambassadors.

Southern kids can follow in the footsteps of Freedom Riders at the Highlander Research and Education Center’s Children’s Justice Camp in New Market, Tenn. With a focus on social democracy, the program examines issues concerning Appalachia and the rural South. Activities include “weaving and waterslides—and writing skits about the inequalities of the U.S. health care system!” according to their site.

South of San Francisco in the Santa Cruz Mountains lies Hidden Villa, a camp with a storied social justice legacy. It boasts the title of first multiracial summer camp and welcomes campers from an array of socioeconomic backgrounds. With Hidden Villa’s broad focus, encompassing race, class, the environment, and food, campers can expect everything from goat milking to the Theater of the Oppressed, a dramatic enactment of social justice issues.

A growing number of camps cater to diverse populations, especially LGBTQ kids and teens. Camp Hawkeye, a trips-based program in New Hampshire, as well as Power of Hope summer camp and Camp Ten Trees, both in Washington state, are among those that embrace a “come as you are” ethos. Camp Common Ground is geared to intergenerational families, encouraging community service and participation in the arts.

Environmental programs continue to be wildly popular on the camp scene. (This year, 77 percent of ACA-accredited camps offered at least one environmental program.) Budding Jacques Cousteaus and Dian Fosseys are drawn to programs like the Broadreach Global Summer Educational Adventures, whose experiences are the ne plus ultra for kids into biology, conservation, and animal behavior. Rather than dodging creatures in murky camp lakes, kids in these programs dive with sharks in the cerulean waters of Fiji, study the rich habitat in the tide pools and reefs of the Bahamas and the Caribbean, and work alongside primatologists in Costa Rica.

Stateside, nature lovers (and perhaps those who need a break from gadgets) recharge for a week at the Green River Preserve in North Carolina. This camp in a bucolic setting is all about disconnecting from WhatsApp and plugging into noncompetitive activities like fly-fishing, kayaking, and environmental science workshops.

Rain City Rock Camp.
(Photo: Rain City Rock Camp/Facebook)

Another trend in camping is the growth of farming and ranching programs, up from 14 percent in 2008 to 26 percent this year. Despite the “so hot right now” status, some, like 62-year-old Plantation Farm Camp in California’s Sonoma County, have been promoting sustainability for decades. With activities such as sheepshearing and caring for puppies and kittens, it might be the only time kids clamor to do their chores. The Farm & Wilderness summer camp program, another well-known institution, is situated on more than 4,000 acres of lush land in Vermont. Don’t expect posh accommodations; F&W’s cabins are free of electricity and running water. Junior foodies who already subscribe to Modern Farmer might be better suited to Stone Barns Center’s Farm Camp in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. Its program for grade schoolers peels back the curtain on the farm-to-table movement, teaching kids how to humanely raise grass-fed livestock and be stewards of the environment.

Finally, for young women who prefer Pitchfork to an actual pitchfork, Rain City Rock Camp is a kick-ass opportunity for girls to effect social change through music. So much more than learning moves like Jagger, the camp explores gender bias, media literacy, and antioppression through music. For those about to rock at Rain City, we salute you.