Starting small

Many of us fondly remember our summer-camp experiences: Days of hiking, swimming and kickball. Nights of s’mores, sleeping bags and spooky stories around the campfire.

You can’t wait for your kids to make the same kinds of memories, right?

But what if your child isn’t quite ready for an overnight camp?

You might consider a day camp. Numerous YMCA day camps serving the Twin Cities — and beyond — offer traditional camp programming for children as young as 4 or 5 without the stress of sleeping over. And — bonus — these programs also offer busing from city schools and other sites, so urban-area parents don’t have to commute to get their kids to camp.

We visited the YMCA’s DayCroix and St. Croix camps in Hudson, Wis., last summer, to get a feel for the programs, which build gradually, starting with day programming for little ones, eventually preparing them to transition to big-kid overnight camps when they’re ready.

Camp St. Croix, about 30 miles east of St. Paul, started in 1909. And though the camp’s day-camp programming isn’t new — it’s been running for 32 years — the camp’s evolved over the years.


Wee Backpackers

DayCroix’s Wee Backpackers program is for campers ages 4 to 5 entering kindergarten in the fall.

“Wee Backpackers are the happiest campers because they’ve never done any of it,” said DayCroix camp director Stephanie Lentz. “They have a backpack, and their lunch box and they get to ride the big-kid bus. They get to have some independence. Everything we do, they get to try, too, but we adapt it to their little selves and their little attention spans.”

Elementary-age kids are separated into other groups, including Chickadees (first or second grade), Cardinals (third or fourth grade) and Eagles (fifth or sixth grade). Kids get to try more than a dozen different activities, including cooperative and team games, scavenger hunts, lake swimming, hiking, archery and arts and crafts. Sound familiar?

Campers also learn about the importance of environmental preservation and education, and take part in a pioneer village, where they can learn to make candles, use looms and even create their own ice cream.

Campers take their fun pretty seriously.

We met Jackson, a Chickadee, during his archery lesson. He was quick to explain how to fire an arrow correctly, using all the new terminology he’d learned that day: “You have to push in the nock or it won’t go where you want it,” he said. “And if you want it to go far or super fast, you pull the string back really far, near your cheek.”


Specialty camps

Does your child have a special passion or an urge to try something new?

Specialty day camps for first graders and older — and in some cases for fourth to sixth grades — cater to kids who want to focus on a particular activity for part of each day, while also taking part in the traditional camp activities for the remainder of the day.

DayCroix offers a wide variety of outdoor sports specialty camps including climbing, archery, fishing, sailing, canoeing, log-rolling, sports-sampler and water-adventure camps.

Creative arts camps include theater; arts and crafts; and dragons, fairies and princesses. Among the nature and science camps are outdoor cooking, farm and garden, nature, science, pioneering, outdoor living skills and, new for 2015, a “Jr. Ranger Camp,” offered in collaboration with the National Park Service.
DayCroix also offers specialty horse camps and teen-focused camps, too.

It seems camp isn’t just about spending a week in the woods anymore. Now it’s an experience that flows and evolves year after year, allowing children to build upon their prior camp experiences with different camp specialties.

For example, a first-grader can pick up a bow and first experience archery during general DayCroix camps, then build on those skills during his or her Chickadee years. Kids can further expand on their skills by signing up for specialty archery camp a few years later and then a teen specialty archery camp a few years after that.

Sleepover trial

The YMCA offers all the above camps as day-camp options, but what if your child wants to try an overnight camp, but isn’t quite sure?

DayCroix allows day-camp kids in fourth grade and up to try sleeping at camp at the end of every Thursday session.

Curious kids get to test the waters and see what traditional St. Croix overnight camp is all about — and assure nervous parents, too.

From the youngest and shyest Wee Backpacker (or Wee Bees as they’re called) — to the most confident camp veteran teen, everywhere you look at Camp DayCroix — and the on-site overnight camp, St. Croix — children are learning, playing, making friends and enjoying nature.

Whether it’s excited reunions during the bus ride each morning, skits and singing at the morning rallies, tie-dying shirts during arts and crafts, finally hitting the target during archery, bonding with a horse, boisterous camp lunches or even their first camp crush, these campers will return home from day camp — in time for supper — with experiences they’ll surely remember for a long time.