Summer months stretch like a cozy blanket, calling for relaxation, unwinding and a bit of fun. School break is the perfect time for sleeping in, defragging your child's brain and surrendering to unstructured days. But every parent knows that the charm of those long, school-free days wears off quickly. Before you know it, you're surrounded by long faces and cries of "I'm bored."

That doesn't have to be the case. Summer break is an opportunity to explore new interests that don't necessarily fall into a typical school schedule. It's a chance perhaps, to improve existing skills and talents.

No matter what sport, recreation or hobby your child has expressed an interest in, there's a theme camp to cultivate their curiosity. Everything from drama and dancing, computers and cheer to sea life and soccer is taught nearby.

So before your kids start climbing the walls, investigate local camping opportunities - including rock climbing. You'll discover a myriad of ways to turn empty days into memorable experiences.

Sports, Exercise and the Great Outdoors

Is this summer the time for your daughter to finally learn how to ice-skate, tie off a slipknot or perfect her backhand? "Campers can expand their love for any activity whether it's horseback riding, tennis, basketball or some other physical endeavor," says Michele Branconier, executive director of the American Camp Association Southern California/Hawaii. "The additional benefit to a sports or outdoors camp is engaging in a healthy activity,"

Whether your child's interested in an individual or team sport, a specialty camp will teach sportsmanship, values and teamwork. "They're learning new things, taking safe risks and all the time building courage and confidence in a sports environment," says Branconier. Is your child interested in a camp that focuses more on skill development and less on competition? Or is your daughter ready for a camp geared toward skill enhancement? Branconier encourages parents to first talk with the camp director or coach to determine their child's skills so that realistic expectations can be set.

A Sporting Chance

With so many athletic, aerobic and outdoor activity options, parents often find it difficult to choose which direction to channel their child's energy. Perhaps as a kid, you longed to ride horses, get a black belt or become a soccer star. You can still pursue those dreams, just not through your child. Keep the focus on your camper and his interests.

"Let the kids choose the direction they go," says Greg McCalester, owner of Elite Gymnastics. McCalester, father of four daughters, often sees many parents living vicariously through their kids. "I love gymnastics and I want kids to love it as well, but it's not for everyone. Don't force your kids into a sport that you want them to love … support them in a sport that they love."

Expect the Unexpected

Every experience is a chance to learn and grow. In a themed-camp setting, often the unexpected moments mean the most and last the longest. "Campers learn the care of the horse and the confidence needed to ride a live animal," says Kim Omalia, the owner of Circle T Ranch. "You may see a very quiet child come alive and the outgoing child shed a tear," says Omalia, as campers act on their desire to be involved with horses.

"In gymnastics students learn with their mind and their body. You can see the transformation when they go from watching other gymnasts perform a flip to doing it themselves," says McCalester. "Initially kids don't realize what goes into learning how to do that. Then, when they execute a flip for the first time, you can see the accomplishment on their face. They've achieved a goal."

Expanding Boundaries

It's hard to start something new without preconceived notions. Sports camps let kids break through those mental boundaries and stretch a little farther. "The kids always learn that they can do even more than they expected," says McCalester. "With lots of practice they are always surprised with how much they can learn. I really like talking to parents who wondered, after dropping their camper off in the morning, if their kids would have fun or would be kept busy. When they return, their child is tired, sweaty and falls asleep in the car on the way home."

Being in the outdoors provides a perfect backdrop to learning. "Little girls fall in love with the horses," says Omalia. "As they learn how to understand the horse, they learn how to adjust themselves to a live animal with feelings. Campers leave with an understanding of animals and compassion. Now they can do something with this big animal and it pays attention to them. There's satisfaction in training and nurturing an animal to respond to you."

Making New Friends

Specialty camps provide an environment for making friends with kids who share a common interest. "Counselors are trained to encourage relationship building from the very first minute through fun games and icebreaker activities," says Branconier. "Each camp will have a unique way to accomplish friend making among campers."

Omalia agrees. "The excitement of being around the horses and other children with similar interests seems to spark a light in their thinking," adds Omalia. "Campers start asking clever questions about horses and nature and life on a ranch, and how it is so different from what they are used to in the city."

"I encourage parents to talk with their child about their interests and consider what they would like to have their child gain from a sports or outdoors camp experience," adds Branconier. "Together, with that information in mind, they should explore the different options available."


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Freelance writer Claire Yezbak Fadden is the mother of a camp counselor known as Lefty. Follow her on Twitter @claireflaire.