During last summer’s Matthew H. Ornstein Washington Summer Debate Institute, David Trigaux remembers a girl who sat in the back of the room for much of the two-week camp session.
“She didn’t say much,” says Trigaux, program director for the Washington Urban Debate League, which hosts the camp. “But when she did say things, they were right. Over the course of the two weeks she started speaking out more and more, and now she’s going to national [debate competitions] this year.”
If you’re the parent of a shy child, that’s the kind of coming-out-of-their-shell scenario you might hope for when signing up for summer camp. To increase that likelihood, there are several factors to consider and questions to ask when choosing a camp.
Sometimes a general camp experience — the kind that includes a variety of activities, like crafts, swimming, drama, cooking and other programs — can be the way to go. At Green Acres Camp in North Bethesda, Md., camps are offered in six-week sessions for younger kids ($2,750) and three-week sessions for older campers ($1,640). Camps of those lengths provide continuity, which can make shy kids feel more comfortable forging friendships or exploring a new activity.
“Over the years, we’ve seen the evolution of camps from what we offer to all of these one-week options where kids are shuffled back and forth among programs,” says Judy Shniderman, pre-camp administrator at Green Acres. “For a shy kid, that can be a nightmare scenario in terms of having to get used to new kids, new staff and a new place every time. Our camp is modeled on the premise that children have to feel safe and secure in order to try something new.”
Debate and drama camps can be a great option for some shy kids. In 2019, the Ornstein Summer Debate Institute takes place July 22-Aug. 2. The camp is free for sixth- through 12th-graders at public schools in D.C. and Prince George’s County, and parents can apply for one of the 150 spots through WUDL’s website.
“Shyness will usually come from a lack of confidence or a lack of comfort, and those are two things we work on building,” says Trigaux. “Debate as an activity helps build the social comfort of engaging with one another.”
But those put-yourself-out-there camps aren’t always the best fit for every shy kid out there. Arts and craft camps can be a good option, because they give children something to focus on. “It’s something they can work on independently,” says Brian Washington, deputy director of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, which offers an Arts Adventures camp over the summer ($380-$475 per week). “There’s no right or wrong way to do art; it’s all about feeling good about what you’re making. Some kids come and they’re really shy on Monday, but by Friday afternoon they’re having a good time and asking their parents to come back for a second week.”
Animal-related camps can also be a good option for shy kids who have a passion for furry, winged or scaly creatures. “Animals tend to be the great equalizer,” says Debbie Duel, director of humane education at D.C.’s Humane Rescue Alliance, which offers camps over the summer ($365-$390 per week) that teach kids about animals and the work the shelter does. “If the kids are just petting a dog or doing a dog training exercise, it’s often the quiet kid who all of the sudden can get the dog to sit.”
Helping kids feel comfortable and in touch with themselves is the main focus of Circle Yoga Summer Camp ($250-$365 per week) in the District.
“The goal of the camp is to make everyone feel at ease,” says Linda Feldman, director of programming at the Chevy Chase studio. “The kids aren’t judged in any way, shape or form. They get a real sense of what mindfulness and yoga are about — accepting themselves for who they are.”
A low staff-to-camper ratio is always a plus for shy kids, so that’s something parents should look out for. “One counselor trying to lead 30 kids is not going to have the bandwidth to give extra attention or TLC to a kid who needs more prodding,” says Jake Schwartzwald, associate director of Everything Summer, a paid service that helps parents around the country find camps for their children. “Find out if there’s a counselor who can be your child’s go-to person.”
Communication between parents and camp can also set shy kids up for success. Green Acres Camp calls all parents two weeks into camp to talk about how their kids are adjusting. Capitol Hill Arts Workshop asks parents to fill out a pre-camp questionnaire about their child.
“Then once they come to camp, we’re able to know how to approach their child and put them in the right situations,” says Washington.