Act, build, paint, play, design: The best of Pittsburgh summer camps
I’m a transplant to Pittsburgh, but my children are native Pittsburghers. Nonetheless, when it came time to dig up summer fun for my three boys, I decided to find camps that showcased what makes Pittsburgh the “in” place to be -- camps that would help them experience the best their hometown has to offer. My only regret: there are too many great options for one summer.
If Pittsburgh is earning the nickname, “Hollywood of the East,” what camp could prepare our kids for their first big close-up? Try Act One Theatre School
“[Pittsburgh is] one of the top theater hubs in the nation, second only to New York,” says Karen Cordaro, artistic director of Act One for the past 30 years. Camps at Act One introduce children to all aspects of the theater and are open to kids from 8th down to 2nd grade, because, Cordaro says, “kids know they are artists early on.”
Parents also know early on when they’ve found a great camp. Kelly McDowell’s son Stephen has been attending Act One for five years.
“He was a timid kid,” said McDowell. “But now he can stand up in front of any group with confidence.” McDowell’s middle daughter didn’t want to pursue acting but took the camp to improve her competitive gymnastics performance.
Jill Krull from Summer Hill said her daughter Megan is happiest at Act One. “School is hard for girls,” Krull says. “But at camp they care for each other. Mrs. C reminds them their thoughts are safe at camp.”
Susie Brendel of Wexford was initially against a theatre camp for her 13- and 15-year-old daughters, but soon couldn’t deny the benefits of Act One. “It’s a really neat camp because there are so many options and electives, like Caribbean dance and improve," she says. "The kids are all made to feel great about themselves and gain a ton of self-confidence.”
“We bring in alumni who are actors on the circuit and share how to actually get jobs. Our kids are accepted at top theatre schools,” says Cordaro. “At the end of summer kids share the scenes, songs, monologues and films they’ve created. Our kids, in that one month, grow at least a year’s worth.”
Pittsburgh isn’t just growing young actors, it’s also steadily growing in the local food movement. Phipps Conservatory
hopes to plant the seeds for a love of homegrown foods with camps like “Plant Your Plate” and “Grow It, Cook It, Eat It.” Environmental Educator Christie Lawry says campers will learn, and eat, from a new vegetable garden.
“We don’t miss a camp at Phipps,” says Colleen Acerra. She drives from Cranberry Township with her daughter Shannon, age 3, especially for summer camps. “We started with their camps last summer and she got so much out of it,” Acerra says. “As a parent, it warms your heart to see your kid actively learning. And I have a learned a ton, too!”
“Campers will be weeding, watering, and harvesting from the garden to make our snack,” Lowry explains. “We’ll have smoothies with fresh fruits and greens, wraps, sushi, heated things like stir fry and quesadillas.”
Lowry expanded the cooking parts because parents were so interested. Frankly, if I could get my kids to grow, cook and eat their own vegetables, I’d win Mom of the Year. To get them primed for Pittsburgh’s booming chef scene, I'd seek out Gaynor’s School of Cooking
. Their summer camps are perfectly positioned to train the next generation of Pittsburgh foodies by giving kids the chance to discover the fun of food while creating their own meals.
Gaynor Grant and husband Dan are serious food professionals. “We used to run one of the biggest cooking schools in America in New York City before we moved to Pittsburgh," says Dan. "We took everything we were doing there and restyled it for 'the foodie.'” Camps begin with Mommy & Me or Daddy & Me and go all the way up to College Survival.
Speaking of college: getting one of your kids to invent the next big app just may cover their college tuition. GameBuilder Camp
could do the trick. It offers campers a chance to develop a computer game.
“What’s unique about our camp is that it’s available for the 8-year-old,” says Mike Borchelt, owner of Active Learning Services, Ltd, which operates the camp. “Many other computer enrichment camps are for high schoolers, teaching them C++ programming, but ours is designed to be fun. It’s simple for an 8-year-old but allows for creativity with older kids.”
Technological innovation is only one aspect of city pride. Pittsburgh is of course the heart of the football belt. And ekfootballcamp
, a non-contact football skills camp, goes a long way to keeping that tradition alive for kids as young as 6. Founder Eric Kasperowicz was an All-American quarterback at North Hills Senior High and strong safety for the Pittsburgh Panthers.
“When I was growing up, there was no avenue for young kids to learn the fundamentals,” says Kasperowicz. “We relied on mom and dad in the backyard.”
Brett Schweiger, age 10, is a veteran camper. “Before you play the games at the end, you go to these different stations,” says Schweiger. “But scrimmaging was my favorite. You get to play in a bigger game because in your backyard it's only 2 on 2, and at camp it’s finally five on five.”
In 17 years, the camp has grown from four coaches and 30 kids on a baseball outfield to 30 coaches, over 200 kids and Pine-Richland's football stadium. Some campers have gone on to the NFL.
Pittsburgh isn’t just known for the steel curtain, it’s also known for the steel spanning its three rivers. “Building Bridges” is an architecture camp for 8- to 10-year-olds at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts
that includes bridge design and a weight challenge. PCA's Murals Camp gives the same age kids a chance to think about what’s best in the city and be inspired to create their own camp murals. Eleven- to 14-year-olds can ponder “What’s Good in My Neighborhood” and become city planners re-designing Pittsburgh from their own imagination.
Marianne Dougherty found the “Neighborhood” camp to be the perfect fit for her 12-year-old grandson Evan. “He’s wanted to be an architect since he was a little kid,” says Dougherty. “When I signed him up, he loved the idea. He told me: A hundred years ago, when they built buildings, they finished the tops of the buildings beautiful. Now the tops are flat. When he’s an architect, Evan’s going to make the tops beautiful again!”
Pictures, top to bottom: Act One; PCA summer arts; EK Football.
Photographs copyright Brian Cohen