Q. Do you know of any science summer camps or programs for 8-14-year-old children? Is there any way for a parent or a teacher to evaluate the various computer camps?
A. Science camps, unfortunately, are rare, although the Smithsonian Associates are offering more science programs than usual this summer and permitting the more mature teen-agers to enroll in the adult classes, too.
There is also the Smithsonian Summer Camp: 1- or 2-week courses all morning, Monday-Friday, with two instructors and on purely scientific subjects like dinosaurs or on a combination of science and art, such as Space Comics. (Kids meet at the Air and Space Museum with a scientist to help them forecast the 21st century and with an artist to teach them how to draw a comic strip about it.) For a summer brochure on Smithsonian courses and costs, call 357-3030.
In addition, area universities are offering a variety of programs for children.
While science camps are hard to find, computer camps are proliferating. However, they're so new that most of them can't be judged on their reputations. Even if they could be, a camp should be chosen much like a school--by the philosophy of the place; experience of the staff; the caring of the counselors and preference of the child.
You'll also need to interview the director; his style will be reflected by the program and by the staff.
Some other criteria: You want to make sure there is a staff member for every 6-8 campers; a computer for every two children; a pleasant environment; a procedure to call the parents in case of an emergency.
Perhaps the biggest hesitation on a computer camp comes from concern about a child studying year-round when he should be getting a change of pace. This may be a sound reaction, but it is not necessarily valid.
Although a special-interest camp--particularly one with a schoolish bent--may conflict with an adult's vision of a lazy, idyllic summer, it suits many children. Children are not lazy; although they need a break from the grind of school, they still want to learn and they learn best by doing.
Between 10 and 14, they often develop a passion for a single subject such as ballet, a horse or computers, all of which can be pleasantly productive. Just be sure the child is doing, not watching, and he's doing it for his own pleasure and not to please you or a teacher.
Parents need to look into their hearts and make sure they are offering the program for the child's joy in it as much as the learning, rather than putting their child into the Washington scramble. Contrary to some beliefs, college worries shouldn't start with kindergarten applications.
It's particularly hard for parents to be honest about their motives when they know that in another 10 years their children will be considered illiterate if they can't use the computer. Parents will feel better about this kind of camp if they know that the computer is more than a useful tool; it's a gas.
It is only fun, however, if the child learns to program it for himself--not by using someone else's software or by copying the instructor's program from a blackboard. Once a child learns the commands of a language he can invent new games (or music or graphics) as he loses interest in the old ones--a constant round of problem-solving. All games, like all toys and all activities, bore a child in a fairly short time, unless he can play them in new ways when he has mastered the old ones.
It's true that a child can learn all this at home, of course--if you can afford a computer and your child can understand the ill-written manuals--but he also can learn to paint and make crafts at home. In a good camp, whatever the focus, a child learns the joy of working with others and adjusting to new people so he will be more confident in new situations. Even though the competition in camp can be heavy, the special camaraderie is probably its best selling point.
This should be quite strong in a computer camp. When two children work on the same machine, developing and solving problems together, the fine-tuning of their relationship is a pleasure to see.
A good computer camp--like any special-interest camp--focuses on its main interest for 2-3 hours a day, and then offers other activities the rest of the time. But one thing most camps don't have is a balance of boys and girls.
For all the talk about the sameness of the sexes, new research is pointing in an old-fashioned direction. Carol Gilligan's seminal book, In a Different Voice (Harvard U. Press, $15; paperback, $5.95) analyzes the research of the four most influential developmental thinkers of our era--Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg--and finds that each noticed not only differences in the social growth, but in the thinking styles of females and males. Unfortunately, each chose the male as the "norm."
Girls, according to Gilligan, generally build a network of friends in their adolescence--a lifetime pattern of caring for others--and rely more on intuition. Boys usually jockey for power with friends in a hierarchical way and use laws and logic to solve problems.
Parents are sometimes amazed to find that the computer is a passing fad for their daughters--even in the most liberated households--while it almost hypnotizes their sons.
If Gilligan is right, the reason is obvious. All computer programs, including video games, are based on split-second logic.
This doesn't mean that girls should not go to computer camps; it is important for them to learn how to program. They may create gentler, less competitive games, and they will, in any case, profit from learning the logic behind their intuition. In other areas, boys are similarly enriched by the sensitivity their parents encourage: an exchange of strengths.
To Gilligan, what is needed is not the segregation of sexes but the combining of them. She feels there would be more harmony if we blend our voices rather than pretend they sound alike.
Questions may be sent to Parents' Almanac, Style Plus, The Washington Post.