Are skateboarding, roller blading, mountain boarding and other wheelcentric sports fad or fixture? The answer appears to be "fixture" as what was initially a trend is now entrenched in a steady growth curve that shows no signs of abating.
What the popularity of wheeled and "extreme" sports means to camps varies. However, there are some consistent threads throughout -- safety, staffing and programming.
From a safety standpoint, the sports can be "extreme", but they can also be regulated so that the extremities fluctuate up and down the scale, depending on what your program and campers dictate.
"Like any good camp activity, the higher the risk the more you manage it," says Tom McGrath, director of Camp Conrad Weiser, South Mountain YMCA, Wernersville, Pa., who runs a mountain board program at the camp. "For example, area selection is important -- making sure the area's free of obstructions, that it's not too high and that it doesn't run into trees. Also, that it's properly staffed, that they're wearing appropriate safety equipment, and that the kids aren't going outside the policy and mountain boarding outside the camp. It's managing the risks and identifying in advance some of the things that can go wrong."
So, regardless of the activity, setting parameters mitigates risk. In fact, the camps interviewed for this article reported that their insurance companies supported the new programming and thus far no injuries beyond a scraped knee or arm have been reported.
Though tabbed as "extreme" and accompanied by images of the sports equivalent of desperadoes hurtling down rocky slopes or flying and flipping 30 feet in the air off a ramp, the reality is and can be very different.
"We decided to go with BMX bike helmets so that their entire head, including their chins, are protected when they skate," says David Miskit, director of Camps Kenmont and Kenwood, Kent, Conn.
Miskit and his wife, Sharon, are in their second summer of skatepark programming. The skatepark is about 60' x 80' with three- and five-foot half pipes, quarter pipes, spines, a combination rail and a more traditional rail.
Miskit says that they send in groups of 20 at a time and divide the kids up by experience and skill levels. The camp programs for both skateboarding and in-line blading at the park and Miskit reports that it's been very popular and successful.
There was some concern that the kids would balk at wearing helmets and pads, particularly the bulkier BMX helmets. But that concern was never realized, nor does it appear to be a problem at other camps with similar programs, even at camps that specialize in it.
"You simply set the rules and people respond. A lot of the chitchat around the campfire for quite a few years was, 'The people won't come to camp because we have all these rules and regulations,' but it hasn't hurt the business at all. You just do it," says Kim Larecy, a director at Windells Camps at Mt. Hood, Ore.
Windells offers snowboarding, skateboarding and BMX riding at its camp through such diverse programs as adult lessons, Olympic-style training for serious athletes and overnight camps that concentrate on the board and riding sports while offering a traditional mix.
"We've been doing it for a long time and were able to progress with the sport. So when we said, with snowboarding, 'Sorry you have to have a helmet on,' it wasn't a problem," says Larecy. "When you're dealing with professional riders and people the kids respect, the kids are modeling their behavior. The people are so into so they really don't care."
Safety equipment cannot be compromised, so camps find that combining a consistent and unwavering policy with a message that's communicated by management and staff in a positive light -- as opposed to, "Yeah… We have to wear pads. Sorry." -- is effective.
"When we bought a full set for our mountain boarding program they gave us the helmets, elbow pads, knee pads and tail pads, but we didn't feel it was adequate, particularly on the trails we were on, because we felt they were going to roll to their shoulders," explains Shellie Santay, director of Pocono Ridge in South Sterling, Pa. "In doing a lot of investigating we found that's where a lot of the accidents were occurring in other programs. So we decided to put lacrosse pads on our kids with full t-shirts over it -- not just short sleeves. That gives them more protection, and that's one of the reasons we haven't had any injuries. I want them completely covered, head to toe."
Santay took an intuitive route before committing to the program by finding the injury trends in the sport and planning based on that.
"Camp directors have to treat it like any other program in that you have to review your equipment at the start of each season and close it down properly," says Santay. "We send our boards out to a local shop that checks the mechanics, winterizes it and prepares it for the next season. Same thing with all of the safety equipment -- we make sure that it's in good condition and that it hasn't been used to an extreme and needs to be retired."
Find a good bike and board shop that can handle the winterizings, spring cleanings and repairs. Camps with mountain board programs report that the moving parts found on mountain boards are very similar to bicycles, so bike shops should be able to handle those as well.
"Use proper gear and make sure it's tuned up and working, especially the brakes -- there's no compromise there," says Bob Strodel, director of Camp Brookwoods in Alton, N.H.
Tom Nordwall, a former head coach at Windells Camps, says that equipment can be donated to the camp by skate equipment manufacturers, like board and blade companies.
"If you're going to have a skate program and you have some visibility, it's beneficial to put up banners and safety equipment with their stickers and logos on it in exchange for donated equipment," says Nordwall.
Once you've designed and begun building a skatepark, take a lot of photos and video of your coaches and counselors on the course, says Nordwall. Then, create a promo package that includes the photos, a video and information about the camp -- history, programs, accreditations and anything else that explains and promotes the camp -- and send it to either the promotions director or team manager for the company you're targeting.
Strodel adds that another area that's not compromised that impacts safety is staff. Camp Brookwoods' application includes a check box for mountain boarding, which obviously identifies those who are interested in helping with the program.
The program has its own mountain board instructor who's been with the program since its inception and trains new people each year.
The challenge for camps is finding that ideal counselor who has both skill and a dedication to safety. As Strodel points out, sports like mountain boarding and skateboarding don't have the same certification programs that you find in riflery and aquatics.
"For us, it's more important to find someone who's competent as far as the safety aspects are concerned. Those we had interviewed with a lot of skateboard background didn't take safety as seriously as we thought it should be taken," says Pocono Ridge's Santay. "If you've got someone who's been doing it for years -- whether they're competitive or not competitive -- if they're not used to wearing safety equipment themselves they may not remind children to do it. If they say something like, 'If you know what you're doing you really don't get hurt that much,' I have no interest in having that person at our camp."
Santay adds that Pocono Ridge, like Camp Brookwoods, is fortunate enough to have a permanent staff person who's skillful enough to run the programs while their primary focus is safety.
Neither Brookwoods nor Pocono Ridge has a skateboarder or mountain boarder, per se, but they have someone who's a natural athlete who understands, practices and can accurately teach the physics of the sport.
"When it comes to archery and water skiing there are a lot of clubs, you can e-mail people and they can start networking, but for skateboarding it's a little harder to find that in terms of what's available on the Internet and other outlets for staff recruitment," says Miskit.
Miskit found their skatepark director through word of mouth. The supporting staff marked those skills on the camp's on-line staff form.
"Growing your staff through an internal leadership program will put you on the right course to finding appropriate staff. Most of the activities we offer don't require high skill people, but people with good common sense, good value systems and an understanding of what's right and what's wrong within the activity they're teaching," says Camp Conrad Weiser's McGrath.
"I can put anyone on a board and show him or her how to do it, but I can't teach a young person that it's not appropriate to take eight kids down the main road during traffic. When I build a skatepark, I will be less concerned about finding someone who's an expert and more interested in finding solid individuals who are safety conscious and have an understanding of right and wrong when working with young people. I don't want to run a boring program either; it's just that you have to find a balance."
Still, finding appropriate staff is a challenge. At Windells Camp, finding skilled counselors, particularly for snowboarding and skiing, has been relatively easy. After all, Windells has grown up with the sport and has close ties with it.
Often, snowboarders skate in the summertime, so finding instructors for their skatepark has also been fairly easy.
"Part of what we do, because we have a good, solid base underneath us, is a counselor-in-training program. We're now seeking out people we think would be good for certain positions. If we see an upcoming rider, whether it's a snowboarder, skater or specialist, we are offering them CIT positions. We're basically creating our base of employees," says Windells' Larecy. "One of our directors goes around from event to event to see who the up-and-coming kids are. We also have a team we sponsor, so we have kids out there on the circuit. We have a lot of elements coming together helping us to create a new base of people who will eventually be running the camp in five to 10 years."
Larecy adds that those interested in the CIT program are required to have a certain amount of experience as a camper at Windells, along with the usual set of skills and character, to be considered.
For more about organizations that can be staffing and informational resources, as well as skatepark and mountain board companies, see the sidebar on page xx.
Once the all-important safety and staff questions are answered, programming must be addressed. Most camps are incorporating wheel sports as part of their traditional mix and find that, with some tweaking specific to the sport, they can be easily brought into the overall programming philosophy and plan.
"Our goal was to expand our adventure programming and reach out to our 11-13 year old boys, which worked, by the way. The younger boys -- our 9-10 year olds -- are very involved in it, and our younger girls are also interested and spend time down there. It has been successful and we're quite thankful for it," says Santay. "We used to have the skate park in a building with our gymnastics program and this year we're building a pavilion to move the gymnastics out so that we can increase the size of the skatepark."
According to camp directors, skateparks -- whether the portable, modular type or concrete -- work fine outdoors. However, Pocono Ridge's skatepark is housed indoors, which Santay says creates a great rainy-day activity and allows it to be locked down when necessary.
Santay adds that skateboarding and mountain boarding are two among many electives campers can choose during afternoon programming, as well as a morning bunk activity period.
"We've had one injury at our skateboard park in three years and none mountain boarding. It's surprising. When you see someone mountain boarding on television you can imagine how dangerous it could be, but when you're just teaching someone to begin with you're not on these massive mountains," explains Santay. "We don't take them to the local ski area. They're mountain boarding around camp so the inclines are not that great. Our kids are practicing balance and maneuvering, not tricks and jumps."
Camps like Windells edge more toward the extreme side; that's what they do. For most camps, however, skateboarding, in-line skating and mountain boarding are programmed as more introductory, though various skill levels are programmed.
A lot of kids want to try their hands, or more literally their feet, at such sports without the intimidation factor that can manifest itself at a local skatepark.
"It's about having a different experience at camp that you can't get at home. There's a balance of experiences you need to give your kids. We play soccer, for example, but if you have a real soccer fanatic, don't come to our camp because we're just going to play recreational soccer," says Brookwoods' Strodel. "Have a plan for the period of time they'll be using the mountain boards so that they gradually learn how to use them and grow accustomed to them before you go on to more challenging terrain. Think of it as training wheels on a bike."
The "training wheels" approach to programming works best from both a camper and director standpoint. Most camps report that they started their programming relatively small, then moved progressively to bigger and better facilities, equipment and programming.
"We give all the children a core program where they touch upon every activity at camp and add skating to their choices. The kids who haven't done it are introduced through a couple of activity periods, and over future weeks they can take it as an option where they concentrate on it every day for a full week. It became very popular. Our electives filled up in that area," says Miskit. "Next year we're looking to expand the skatepark. We'll add staff and more elements. We get a lot of repeat kids, so we want to make it bigger and better for them."