MAHOPAC, N.Y. - It’s just like school … only better.

Every year, as summer kicks in, hundreds of Mahopac kids head off to one of the school district’s three elementary schools for summer camp. These camps, sponsored by each school’s PTO and run by teachers, are not your father’s summer camps. While the emphasis is always on healthy fun, there is often a little academic component thrown in. The kids wind up learning something without realizing it.

Susan Downey, an Austin Road Elementary fourth-grade teacher and co-president of the school’s PTO, helps oversee the camps at Austin—and there are many.
Downey said that while all schools in the district have summer camps, Austin Road has the most offerings. They include a STEM Camp (science, technology, engineering, math) for grades 2-5; Summer Learning Camp for grades K-2; Kinder Camp for kids about to enter kindergarten; Art Camp, and Camp Fun in the afternoons.

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“We started the afternoon camp three years ago to tack on to the morning learning camps so that our parents who work had the opportunity to send their kids to camp for a full day and to give our students the chance to get outdoors, get exercise, be with friends and cool off on ‘water days,’ ” said fourth-grade teacher Marisa Horvath. “We have over 25 students from Mahopac Middle and High School who volunteer at our camps and our elementary students really like them and look up to them. It’s great to see their interactions.”

Downey notes that Austin Road is the only one of the elementary school to offer an afternoon Camp Fun. 

“Camp Fun focuses less on academics and more on teamwork and enhancing self-esteem and promoting independence,” she said. “They get to go outside a lot to keep the blood pumping.”

STEM Camp leans more toward the academic side, but with a large dollop of fun mixed in. The school piloted the STEM Camp last summer and this year Fulmar Elementary added it to its roster.

“STEM is more hands-on,” Downey said. “It’s about collaboration, experimentation, teamwork and thinking outside the box. It’s really cool.”

This year, STEM campers got the chance to watch chicks hatch from eggs provided by a fellow camper’s pet chicken.

Austin Road’s STEM Camp has been run by fourth-grade teachers Carolyn Ryan and Tiffany Ziegelhofer since its inception last year. Through interactive games using technology, students practice math and basic coding skills. This year they designed and created a cardboard carnival for the younger campers and built simple machines and made “slime.”

For camper Erin Harney, this summer marked her first time at STEM Camp.

“You have to solve stuff with quick thinking,” she said. “I like spending my summer doing that.”

Melania Hracs was drawn to STEM Camp because it’s run by Ryan and Ziegelhofer, who were her teachers during the school year.

“I thought it would be extra fun because I was in Ms. Ryan’s and Ms. Ziegelhofer’s class and thought I could spend summer time with them,” she said. “My favorite part was breakout box; that’s when we have to find clues around the room and work together to solve and find the hidden message. We learn stuff and have fun at the same time and we get rewards!”

For Mason Hammer, STEM Camp proved to be full of surprises.

“It’s been a great time. I got to go see the garden, which was actually more interesting than I thought it would be,” he said. “I also like the art; we’ve been using cardboard to make a carnival for the Kinder Camp. By re-using stuff, it reduces the landfills. By using something old to make something new we are being engineers.”

That’s the whole idea, Ryan notes.

“All our [STEM] projects are geared around the basic skills of an engineer,” she said.

Gabrielle Lama and Charlynn Foster have been friends since first grade and are now entering their sophomore year. Both are volunteers at the camps and say the experience has been influential in choosing a future vocation.

“Teaching is definitely something that is open for me because I found that I love working with kids,” Lama said.

Foster said a career as a teacher is something she’s thought about and being a volunteer at summer camp has given her a taste.

“Ms. Ryan was my fifth-grade teacher and ever since then I like to come back to see what she’s doing with the kids and think that is something I would like to do, too,” she said.

Another volunteer, Colleen MacNeil, who will be a junior this fall, said teaching is a possible option for her as well.

“I always thought about being a teacher,” she said. “I want to go into sports medicine right now, but teaching can be a backup.”

Another camp focused on academics is the Learning Camp, but the kids don’t mind. There is a new theme every summer and this year it’s dinosaurs.

“They learn about dinosaurs all while participating in a variety of language arts, math, science and technology activities,” Downey explained. “They are learning about the many kinds of dinosaurs, fossils and volcanoes. Each student has been reading and writing about dinosaurs. They have also created their own dinosaur eggs, fossils and even their own volcano.

“Each year they pick a different theme, so if a student comes back again, they have a completely new theme.”

The Kinder Camp helps incoming kindergartners prepare for a new adventure.

“We are prepping them for kindergarten; those are the rookies,” Downey said. “They love it. They get a flavor of what the other kids are like; they get a flavor of being away from their parents for a few hours. They get to meet some of the teachers. It gets their feet wet so they are a little more familiar with the school and some of the procedures so when they come in September, they have a little bit of a head start.”

The smallest of the camps is Art Camp, which has the campers take on many different projects throughout the summer.

“Art Camp is a small intimate group, and they do a different project every day,” Downey said. “It’s phenomenal. It’s hands-on. They do drawings, they just did clay pots, and they build things out of recycled items. It’s pretty cool.”

The four-week camps, which cost about $255 per camp per kid, wrap up at the end of July. This year, Austin Road had about 275 campers take part. And Downey says while the kids love it, their parents are just as appreciative.

“It offers families a little taste of camp life but it’s run by teachers who already know the kids and every day is different and there is constant interaction,” she said. “Some come in the morning and then stay and go right into Camp Fun in the afternoon. They stay the whole day. The parents are super happy. It’s an awesome quality camp run by people they know.”