Sarah can't wait for the summer—finally a break from the busy days of school, tutoring, extracurricular activities and homework!

But when she and her parents sit down to plan out her summer break, they're caught in a bind. Between their family vacation, Sarah's summer sports schedule and ballet classes, there doesn't seem to be much time—or money—for camp.

Camp directors are responding to the economic downturn, jam-packed schedules of today's children and plain-old camp jitters by increasingly offering shorter camp sessions of one-to-two weeks in addition to traditional, month-or-longer camps.

“It's been going on for a while, but this year, I see it happening more than ever,” says Carey Rivers, co-director and adviser for Tips on Trips and Camps. “... It's striking.”

Some camps call them “rookie sessions.” They're a way to get your feet wet, perfect for younger campers who want to ease their way into longer sleepaway camp sessions.

Certainly, the longer the session a child might attend, there are more opportunities to build skills, build long-lasting friendships, all those kinds of things. At the same time, phenomenal things happen when kids attend camp for even three days. They have experiences they'll talk about years later when they're in high school. I think it's one of those judgment calls where you have to figure out what works best for your family.
–  John Duntley, senior camping specialist for the YMCA of the USA

“It's a way to reduce the cost of camp, and it's also that kids seem to have a lot more interests than they  used to, Rivers adds. “They might go to a week of traditional camp, then a week of hockey camp and a week of film camp.”

What's Missing?

Kids may be losing out on the full summer camp experience by jumping between camps or opting to go to just a week or two of camp, some camp experts suggest.

Instead of mapping, packing and planning a week-long rafting trip, short-term campers will likely go on a quick day trip that was planned by camp staff. Rather than putting on a huge theater production, campers will rehearse and perform simpler plays with less-involved scenery.

Often times, shorter camp sessions are offered as a part of a full-length summer camp, meaning one-week campers are dropping in on already-formed friendships and may miss popular camp features like color war.

And by attending for just a week or two, children aren't given as much time to grow, develop friendships and learn independence.

“They're missing out on community,” Rivers says. “It takes a while to make a friend, and once you get comfortable at camp, you can try some things you ordinarily wouldn't be so comfortable about. During the third and fourth weeks, I think a lot happens in terms of growth. That's not to say it's not happening in one or two weeks, but kids who only go for two weeks typically don't have the same camp loyalty as those who go longer.”

A Tailor-Made Experience

A week at camp may be just that, but oftentimes, it's classified as “the best week ever!” says John Duntley, a senior camping specialist for the YMCA of the USA. Duntley recently wrote a story for the American Camping Association’s magazine about the value of short-term camp sessions.

He says camps are adapting to the changing face of the American family by offering shorter sessions. Families have busy summers and operate on a much more scheduled basis. Economics, of course, also play a role, he says.

Regardless of the length of the camp session, it's likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the camper, he says.

“Certainly, the longer the session a child might attend, there are more opportunities to build skills, build long-lasting friendships, all those kinds of things. At the same time, phenomenal things happen when kids attend camp for even three days. They have experiences they'll talk about years later when they're in high school. I think it's one of those judgment calls where you have to figure out what works best for your family.”

Samantha Leonard is director of Camp Friendship, one of the pioneers in short-term camping. They moved to shorter camp sessions in the late '80s or early '90s in order to market to a wider audience, she says.

“It allows you to have a tailor-made camp experience,” she explains.

Families can send children to camp for two weeks, throw in a vacation, then send them back to camp. Families have the option of signing up for any—or all—of their nine weeks of camp offerings.

How to Make it Work

Shorter camp sessions work when the camp staff know how to maximize the time they have with campers. Staff should have strict time schedules to enable children to get a taste of everything the camp has to offer.

At Camp Friendship, where around 50 percent of campers are there for just a week, Leonard says they have it down pat.

Cabin mates are grouped to ensure they spread out short-term campers with campers who will be there for several weeks. They prepare long-term campers for the incoming class and show them how to make newcomers feel welcome.

Camp staff should be advised not to bring up inside jokes or stories from past weeks, as that can make new campers feel excluded.

Before a child leaves for camp, especially if she will only be there for a week or two, parents should go over what to expect and possibly even visit the camp site. One of the biggest struggles with attending camp is homesickness, Leonard says. By tackling that issue head-on, parents can guarantee their child will get the most out of the experience.

“If parents can get their kids to go and see where they're going, that's a very big part of a kid's healthy transition to camp,” she says. “Prepare the kids: 'You're going to be away from mom and dad for a week, but these are all the things you have to look forward to. You're going to be on an adventure and then come back and tell us all about it.'”

Make the Most of the Opportunity

Attending a week-long camp or a portion of a longer camp can be the perfect testing grounds for an extended stay in the future. Children can use the time away to become familiar with all that camp has to offer and become comfortable away from home.

No matter the length, summer camp's benefits are countless.

“Whether it's a week-long session or a month-long session, there are so many distractions in this life,” Duntley says. “Getting away to a camp program really brings children back to outdoor experiences, physical activity, connection with people and their natural environment. That gives them a great deal of new exposure to the things they may not do or see every day. It really provides a lot of fun and a great deal of learning.”