Put on your gardening gloves and grow your own food. Take steps to save the environment, learn a new skill or keep your brain sharp with extra reading.
Most of all -- ditch the electronics.
These are among growing trends that kids may see when they head to camp this summer. Yes, it's only February, but registration already has opened at many of the traditional camp and sports organizations, parks, museums, schools and colleges, dance troupes, arts centers, animal shelters, heritage groups and churches and synagogues in the region.
Despite the still-sputtering economy, the American Camp Association is expecting another strong summer season. More than a third of ACA accredited camps reported greater than an 8 percent enrollment rise in 2012 compared with 2011.
"I think people have seen the value in the summer camp experience. So regardless of vacations, families that understand camps still make it a priority and make the time and budget to work a summer camp experience of some length into their children's summer plans," said Michael Chauveau, executive director for the American Camp Association in Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Camps that promote community service, sustainability and those that offer more flexibility to accommodate family schedules are growing in popularity in the Pittsburgh area.
"One of the trends that we've seen over the past three years is a move toward more flexibility in scheduling. Camps have tried to accommodate families' busy schedules and economic situations by offering shorter sessions," Mr. Chauveau said.
YMCA's Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer in Fombell, for example, has prioritized flexible, shorter-week programs. It offers a two-week program, a one-week program, a three-day program and an overnight program, and families can combine the different options for a maximum of three two-week camps.
"I'd say we have a flexible program," said Zach Hoffman, executive director of Camp Kon-O-Kwee Spencer. "You can't really expect summer camp to be an important part of a family's life if you don't tailor your program to their needs."
In another trend, camps are working to stem the summer reading slide by getting kids more involved in literacy. ACA offers Explore 30, which partners with major publishing houses to provide reading materials to camps that want to incorporate reading.
This comes with a greater push from parents to wean their children off electronics.
"There has been even more of an effort to reconnect kids to nature and to make camp an electronics-free zone where kids are learning about their environment, fighting obesity and getting intentional about moving," Mr. Chauveau said.
One of the most popular efforts toward this goal has been the push to start gardens on camp grounds to produce food that is served in camp dining halls.
Having children understand where their food comes from is a priority, according to Mr. Chauveau. "In some summer camps, the kids plant seeds, tend the gardens, and then donate the overflow harvest to food banks in the local community," he said. "This has also led to a greater focus on community service in general and connecting farm to table."
One such camp, YMCA Camp Tippecanoe, south of Canton, Ohio, began focusing on connecting kids to nature last fall. Scott Weigley, the camp's director, said, "We felt as though gardening was a good hands-on way to get into that system of bringing food from farm to table so that the kids could understand where their food comes from. We think that a lot of times they don't understand that. At our camp, we focus in on spirit, mind and body and we feel as though the connections kids make with nature are important."
River Camp, coordinated by the nonprofit RiverQuest and the Carnegie Science Center, focuses on sustainability in a nontraditional way. Students ages 8-12 learn about the environment through sailing, weather, boats and navigation education while aboard the green vessel The Explorer.
Antiochian Village Camp in Bolivar, Westmoreland County, also emphasizes an appreciation for nature in its camp curriculum through an environmental outdoor educational program.
"We're a faith-based camp, so we believe it's important to understand God's creation and how to take care of our environment," said camp director Anthony Yazge said. "This is especially important today, when kids are living in a 'concrete jungle,' always indoors or watching TV, and not really getting outside and appreciating nature."
In Squirrel Hill, registration opened Feb. 11 for summer day camps at Frick Environmental Center, which offers an array of programs that teach children about nature (many of the morning kinder camps are already full). For kids who have completed sixth or seventh grade, there's also a program to learn basic wilderness survival skills.
Beyond traditional camps such as Camp Kon-O-Kwee, Falcon Camp in Ohio or Deer Valley YMCA Camp in Somerset County, there are a multitude of specialized programs at local colleges, museums, arts centers, etc.
Chatham University runs a Music and Arts Day Camp, Collegiate YMCA at Pitt operates a day camp, and Carnegie Mellon University offers its C-MITES summer program as well as hosting iD Tech Camp on its campus. For high school students, CMU offers six-week art, drama, music, architecture and National High School Game Academy.
"Camps are still doing what they've always been good at, which is teaching kids life skills. In the context of a nurturing and supportive community, human relationships with their peers and adults are invaluable in teaching kids skills such as independence, responsibility, teamwork, cooperation, communication and leadership," Mr. Chauveau said.
The American Camp Association on its website (www.acacamps.org) lists 2,400 ACA-accredited camps that meet up to 300 health and safety standards. The Post-Gazette also lists local summer camps at PittsburghMom.com (look under resource directories). To post a local camp on PittsburghMom.com, email Heather Starr-Fiedler at PittsburghMom@gmail.com.
Correction/Clarification: posted Feb. 20, 2013: In an earlier version of this story the wrong location was given for Succop Conservancy.
Noel Um: email@example.com.