Smart Poodle loves kids, and kids love to go to summer camp. Parents always have so many questions about camp, and there’s no better place to get the answers than from the experts at one of America’s best-loved summer camps – French Woods. Today we are interviewing Camp Staff Director Beth Schaefer and her husband, Marketing Director Michael Knauf, also head of the Video, Computer, and Visual Arts Departments.
French Woods is an extraordinary performing arts camp for kids ages 7 to 17. It is located in beautiful Hancock , NY, with an office in Coral Springs, FL.
A bird’s-eye view of the sprawling acreage of French Woods Camp
Many parents are apprehensive about sending their children to sleep-away camp. What advice do you have for them?
(Beth) Leaving home for the first time can be difficult. Whether you are seven and heading away to summer camp or if you are eighteen and heading off to college. Personally, having grown up at my Dad’s summer camp and never truly learning to be on my own, I was terrified to leave home for school and put off truly heading out on my own until I was over twenty one! I would want my own child to have the confidence to learn that self-reliance at in a safe environment like a summer camp. The earlier you start, the easier it can be!
(Michael) The biggest problems we have with kids making the adjustment to being away from home, comes from the parents, not the children. To make it easiest for your child, talk to the camp staff for advice before they come to camp, and work with them to help your child have a successful experience. The kids have a support network built into camp, the parents do not — don’t let the fact that you miss your child make it harder on them to make the adjustment.
Camp Staff Director, Beth Schaefer, enjoying horseback riding
What is important for parents to consider when choosing a camp?
(Beth) Families look at different things when choosing a program. Some look for a traditional or religious camp, while others look for specialty programs. Many specialty camps are fairly pinpointed in nature, offering only one type of program. Make certain that the program your child is looking at offers enough diversity to keep your child’s interest during the duration of their stay while focusing on the lessons you wish to teach.
(Michael) Consider your child’s interests first. If they hate sports, sending them to a baseball camp may not be good for them. One camp can be very different than the next in the programs offered, the general atmosphere, and the amount of flexibility they offer each child. Some kids will do very well in a traditional program, some will do better in a specialty program, and some will do best in a program like French Woods, which offers individual choice. I highly recommend visiting the camp while it is in session, to get a feel for the place.
Is there a way for parents to accurately check out a camp’s reputation so they can feel comfortable that their kids are in good hands?
(Beth) The primary camping association is the American Camping Association. This nation wide organization requires camps to adhere to strict standards of procedures, policies and practices. Visit the camp while in session and speak to the director. Perhaps the most valuable tool, however, is to speak to a family who has been to the camp and discuss their experience.
You can also use internet opinion sites like epinions.com or campratingz.com, but like everything on the internet, these sites are often abused… if you ignore the best and worst ratings, you’ll likely get a pretty fair impression.
What do you do to appease homesick campers?
(Beth)At French Woods, we know that every child experiences home sickness in their own way and we try to give them the special attention they need to be successful during their summer at camp.
(Michael) As a basic philosophy, we think that it’s much better for a child to make it through the summer, rather than to give up after a little difficulty. To support that we will do anything required to help a child through homesickness. It is important to realize that it is very normal and happens to nearly every child to some degree or another. We find that the best response to homesickness is to give the child extra attention and to keep them busy, something that we can do very well at French Woods because of our high counselor-to-camper ratio and our wide range of activities.
When camp is not in session, husband and wife team, Michael and Beth travel the globe recruiting camp staff members (Lima, Peru)
When should I start thinking about registering for French Woods?
(Beth)The best time to register for camp is prior to September 15th so that you can benefit from our early registration discounts. Our middle two sessions begin to close around January and the first and fourth follow suit shortly thereafter.
(Michael) You should start thinking about camp in general for your child when you think they would benefit from it, for some children that’s as early as 7 years old, for some it’s later. The benefits of camp include developing individuality and independence.
How many campers do you have at French Woods?
(Beth) Depends on the session – session one is deliberately kept small at about 250 campers. Sessions two through four run at up to 650 campers.
(Michael) That makes French Woods a large camp, but there are benefits to size, among them a very rich program offering and a great diversity of campers and staff.
Spacious cabins at French Woods
How many counselors do you have?
(Beth) Our full staff will run at over 400 and each cabin is made up of 10-12 campers with a minimum of 3 counselors.
(Michael) French Woods is unique in that almost all of our counselors are qualified to teach in a specialty area, so the cabin counselors may be musicians, or coaches, or artists. We find that this encourages kids to try new activities that they might not otherwise be exposed to. It also allows us to attract terrific staff, because they also are at camp to do the things they love, their enthusiasm spills over to the kids, too.
Where do the staff members come from?
(Beth) We have staff from all over the world. We look for college students who are studying within their area of specialty and for teachers and professionals who function as senior teachers and counselors.
(Michael) Last summer we had counselors and campers from more than 46 countries.
What types of concentrations do you offer for campers?
(Beth) While French Woods is known for our arts programs in theater, music, dance, circus and visual arts, our individual choice program also offers magic, waterfront, sports, horseback riding and skate park. Every child at camp is welcome to participate in all areas of program regardless of their primary concentration.
(Michael) Our program is unique; each camper works with our staff to design their own individual program, made up from the more than 90 activities we offer. Kids that are serious about dance, can take dance classes all day long, kids that are mad for theater can spend all their time doing theater. We have kids that focus on one area of activity, and kids that dabble in a wide variety of different activities; it all depends on the child. We even allow the parents to have input on the process, and to suggest activities that we should encourage the child to try.
“We love camp! The camaraderie among the kids is awesome!” says Michael
Can you describe for us what putting on a full theater production at camp entails from audition to performance?
(Beth) Because children do not audition to be accepted to French Woods, they go through a placement process when they arrive at camp. Within theater, the kids do a basic audition for every show they are eligible for by age in a mass audition for the directors. They can sing something as simple as Happy Birthday or come with a prepared audition piece - we provide the accompanist. Dancers, musicians and kids interested in circus will go through a low pressure placement too.
Later in the day individual theater directors will ask kids they need to see again to return for a “call back” where they might sing or act from the show they are directing. That evening, the theater director meet cast all the shows. We make sure that each child is cast in the best roll available to them. Every child who auditions for a musical is cast in a show.
Shows rehearse for two to three hours each day for two and a half weeks. Musicals have rehearsals with full pit orchestras and the sets, costumes and props are prepared for each show. During our final weekend of each session, we invite parents and friends to come visit so they can see the final performances in each of our five theaters in repertory style. What the kids produce is incredible. Every summer I am impressed by the talent of the kids at camp.
(Michael) The theater department is supported by the music department, which provides orchestras for the musical theater productions – also made up of campers and staff, the costume department, the tech theater sound and lighting departments, the dance department (for choreography) the props department, and the stagecraft department, for sets. Campers are involved in every area and the support from every area helps the productions really come together and feel professional. There’s also opportunities for kids who don’t want to be on stage: to design costumes, to run sound and lighting boards, to move set pieces, or to play music for the shows.
That sounds like a lot of fun! It sounds like you have many talented campers and counselors. Do you have campers who return year after year?
(Beth) Of course! We also have kids who find us late in their teens who many times stay on as counselors.
French Woods production of the musical, Chicago
It must be sad when they are too old to return as campers.
(Michael) It is, but a surprising number stay in touch, and seeing kids build on the foundations they start at French Woods is very rewarding… this year, Beth and I have seen 8 or 10 current and former campers on Broadway, and that doesn’t mention the ones that go on to be fashion designers, or rock stars, or teachers, or writers…
What is your favorite part of being in camp yourself?
(Beth) The joy. Whether that it is the moment the kids see their friends who they haven’t seen since last summer, the thunderous applause of opening night, or watching a child discover that they are truly good at something, camp is about kids finding their joy; Helping kids do that is why we do what we do.
(Michael) Seeing the way the kids support one another. The camaraderie is awesome.
Beth and Michael, thank you for all this great insight. You have made summer camp sound like such an enriching experience for our children, and you have helped to ease parents apprehension. I wish I were a kid again!
A great place to start is by watching the video. The website is spectacular, and once you read about the extensive activites available to please every camper, you’ll understand why so many children return again and again, year after year.