School’s out for summer, so camp is in. A necessity for working parents, or just a way to get kids away from video games and out the door, camps of every variety now are in session across Oak Park and River Forest.

Do you ever wonder what the kids are actually doing? For those of us out of the camp loop, or with kids who answer all questions with either “fine” or “nothing,” we decided to drop in on a few and take a look. Here’s what we found.

Acting out with Village Players

It’s hard to believe the actors in the Village Players Theatre production of 42nd Street are between 9 and 17.

They ooze enthusiasm”they aren’t afraid to look convincingly wistful as they sing “every situation has a sunny side,” or grin at the audience instead of their feet as they tap dance away. Their concentration is immense”they’re ready and waiting backstage at least 10 minutes before they’re due out front. And when the director speaks, there’s no whispering from the chorus.

“Energetic,” is the most descriptive word for Mara Dale, who plays the 15-year-old star of the show, Peggy Sawyer. “It’s more energetic than any play I’ve ever been in,” she says.

Kieran Solomon, 10, who hopes to be on Broadway someday, says the energy stems from the high expectations of directors Lee Peters and Scott Pietruszka. “They treat us like professionals,” she says. Even though they rehearse the same production from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. each day, “We never get bored,” Solomon says.

From day one, Peters expected the campers to be prepared: toting pencils and scripts, memorizing lines and blocking as soon as possible.

Amidst all this professionalism, though, Peters and Pietruszka get clear reminders that the actors are still kids. Hysterical laughing, poking, “he touched me” or doing the robot onstage aren’t uncommon with this group. But Peters likes working with kids. Adult actors, he says, are not as willing to let loose.

The full-chorus singing and dancing make 42nd Street a challenging production for any level, Peters says. Other people in the acting business are always a bit shell-shocked when they hear that he’s doing it with preteens and teenagers.

“I get these looks like, ‘What are you, crazy?'” Peters says. “I want them to be proud of the skills they learn here.”

Some of these skills go beyond tap dancing and pretending. Peters also hopes his campers will retain some life skills, such as working hard, being prepared and being part of a team.

Camp isn’t constant rehearsing, although theater is always in the back of their minds, Pietruszka notes. They also play games, often games like charades that encourage the kids to act.

“They still use theater skills but they don’t know it,” he says. And there are occasional non-theater activities, such as the “breakfast lunch,” when campers wore their PJs to camp and ate pancakes and bacon as they lounged on their sleeping bags.

Campers also pitch in offstage. Everyone’s on stage crew and the campers have already had a few days where they all came in their scrubs and painted the set.

Although Emily Dammers, 11, enjoys stage crew and singing, acting is the highlight of her camp days at Village Players. Dammers has created an entire persona for her five-line chorus character, whom she has named Frances. Frances is easily shocked; she’s a new, scared actress trying to make it, and she really looks up to the stars, Dammers explains.

“You get to put a little bit of yourself in your character,” she adds. “It gives you a chance to express yourself.”

Pint-size kicks at sports camp

Four-year-old Katie just learned something new: how to dribble a soccer ball. She doesn’t want the ball to get away from her, so her current technique is to shuffle along, carefully nudging the ball with baby steps.

Her mom, Christi Bonaccorsi, stands at the sidelines outside Willard School in River Forest, in case Katie needs some extra hugs or reassurance. This is the first time Katie has gone to camp, and her soccer camp, Pee Wee Sports Camp run by the River Forest Park District, isn’t quite as familiar as preschool yet.

“I just want it to be fun for her, for her to feel comfortable,” Bonaccorsi says. “At this age, I think it’s about learning basics and most of all, to have fun.”

Susie Hosty, a third and fourth grade teacher at St. Luke, has tailored this camp to fit its tiny campers, who are between ages 3 and 5. Many of them are learning about soccer for the first time, and they won’t play a full game till the end of the week. Wiffle ball is on the menu for next week, and the usual camp games, including spud and red rover, are up after that.

The kids just learned how to dribble the soccer ball yesterday, so Hosty begins a relay race where three kids at a time dribble the ball down to the cone and back before handing it off to the next kids in line. She even throws in some silly drills, like running down to an orange cone, fitting it on their head, twirling around and running back. Because the ground is damp today, some of them are just trying not to fall down.

Her teaching bent is clear as she conducts their morning stretches, reciting ABCs as they stretch their hands to the sky. “The little things make it more interesting for them,” Hosty says.

Another “little thing” is the length of the camp”it runs from 8:45 to 9:45 a.m. daily. It’s short because the little kids have short attention spans and would run themselves out if it were longer, says camp supervisor Michelle Biondo, who’s in charge of this camp and the park district “tots” camp as well. There are also frequent water breaks”the large field keeps kids from getting lost but doesn’t provide a lot of shade.

The camp day culminates with a soccer-esque game called “shark attack,” where all the kids dribble their own soccer balls except for the two “sharks,” who wear orange pinnies (vests) and try to kick the balls out of bounds. This game can get a bit competitive with the older kids, says Biondo, but these guys are pretty easygoing and gentle. It’s the highlight of the day for Katie.

Biondo figures there must be a lot of athletic people in River Forest, because there’s always a high demand for sports camps.

Although the kids should come out with some basic soccer skills, teaching them social skills ranks higher on the list for Biondo. As Bonaccorsi points out, they’ll go to kindergarten with some of these soccer buddies. Playing together now gives them a head start.

Parent Anna Poulin agrees. She sends her 4-year-old son, Matthew, so he can learn how to get along with other kids and be a good listener.

Biondo and the other counselors try to make sure everyone is involved. If any kid feels a bit unsure or doesn’t want to play, there are four high school and college age counselors (and Biondo) to pull them back in, distract them or talk it out.

From the sidelines, Peggy McGrath watches her grandson Ryan Stutz kick the soccer ball around. His dad played soccer in high school and college and now it’s Ryan’s turn to catch up.

“Everyone’s very encouraging,” says McGrath.

Renaissance time travel

Did you know that people in the Renaissance only bathed once a year? Weddings usually happened in June, since the bridal party would still be sweet-smelling after their May baths.

That fact is the one that will stay with Debra Barnish after her week-long Renaissance-themed camp at Dominican University. It’s one of a group of classes, each running for a week, that the university offers through its Gifted and Talented Summer Program.

During “Reviving the Renaissance,” Barnish and seven other kids experienced sword fights on “horses” (noodles, the same ones used as flotation devices in the pool), tried to hit an archery board with raw eggs, and made their own “javelins” (wooden rulers).

But the camp wasn’t all fun and games. Instructor Barbara Buenik wanted to show them that in the Renaissance, “everything wasn’t as perfect as it [is] today.” So they wrote with a real quill on parchment, challenging because they had to keep dipping it into the ink to get the writing to show up. When they swam on one hot day, Buenik told the kids how people used to jump in rivers to cool themselves off.

And they got a chance to dress up festively for the Friday afternoon Renaissance Faire and banquet that ended the camp. The boys tended toward shields and swords, while the girls preferred long velvet dresses.

So why would a kid want to spend a perfectly good summer week learning about the Renaissance?

For Andrew Kelly, 11, Renaissance camp fits with his history-buff personality. He enjoyed learning about sword-fighting and the gallantry of those times. “Back then, war seemed to have more of a purpose,” he observes.

Sally Wallace, a camp parent, says she likes this camp because the kids learn, but it’s in a fun setting”no tests or papers. “They make it more creative,” Wallace says.

Bugs, rainforests and juice cartons

“Should we put the little baby outside?”

The junior naturalists at Oak Park Conservatory Camp have just unearthed a tiny spider from the dirt they’re using to pot rainforest plants.

Jim Hodapp, one of the camp instructors, comes over to examine the spider, carefully displayed in a camper’s palm. He gathers the kids around and they name it: Sunshine.

Sunshine survives the trip outside, but a pill bug, also found in the plant dirt, isn’t so lucky”it suffocates because of all the eager hands clutching it. Hodapp mourns the pill bug, telling the kids they don’t ever want to kill a bug on purpose.

“I want the kids to have a positive feeling about nature,” he says. Hodapp and the other instructor, Larry Godson, are part of the Save the Prairie Society for Wolf Prairie, and they got involved in the conservatory camp because they saw there was nothing offered by the society that really appealed to kids.

They let the kids direct the camp, Hodapp says. And they take “kid-directed” one step further in the Eco-Observation camp, where older kids and instructors visit parks and zoos to examine leaves, clover and critters.

“This is summer, they should be having fun,” he says.

Sometimes camp takes the form of show-and-tell. Hodapp shows off a truck made out of bamboo sticks and juice cartons he bought in Jamaica. When Godson exhibits his bug collection, the kids are especially impressed with the enormous Goliath beetle.

Every time 8-year-old Michael meets someone new, he asks, “What kind of plants do you have in your yard?” right after learning their name, says his mom, Eileen Miller. She sent him to conservatory camp because he was so genuinely interested in the plants.

Tracy Gurdian says she can tell her daughter listens to Hodapp’s stories because Ashley, 8, has retold many of them for her. Instead of treating her like a kid, Gurdian says, “they treat her like a person.”

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