When the final school bell rings in the summer break, many parents turn to private businesses for programs to keep their children active through new experiences. Throughout the Rio Grande Valley there are dozens upon dozens of summer camps offering just about any activity that catches a youngster’s fancy.
From horseback riding to physical fitness and art to academics, these businesses offer year-round classes in their fields, but come summer they add more short-term, focused camps.
On 11 acres in north Edinburg, the JHK Equestrian Country Club has week-long camps that introduce youngsters from 6 to 16 years of age to the world of horses. Owner Jamie Ricks grew up in a horse family in Georgia and remembers competing in horse shows almost every weekend. “We have been here in Edinburg for 11 years but I have been doing this for over 30 years,” she said. “Or more like 45 years when you count all the horse shows when I was a kid. It’s been pretty much my entire life.”
The equestrian center, with a stable of 22 horses, offers show team classes all year, and after-school programs from September to May. The summer camps start in early June and each one runs for a week with 10 to 12 youngsters. “They will experience riding a horse, including riding bareback at the end of the camp,” Ricks said. “They all love to ride bareback.”
In addition to riding, campers learn how to groom and saddle a horse, and even clean out the stalls. “Amazingly, a lot of kids love to clean out the stalls,” she said. “We try to find the things they like to do the most and then group them up that way.”
Ricks and her staff of instructors give individual attention to campers, and stress safety as a top priority. “That’s the thing we stress the most. Kids learn how to read a horse’s body language, how to approach a horse properly.” They also learn how to check equipment such as saddles and bridles to ensure a safe riding experience.
Youngsters ride in an arena with basic obstacles to maneuver over and around as they learn teamwork and responsibility. “It’s all about the kids having a great experience and making new friends,” Ricks said. “Children learn to respect animals, in this case horses in particular.”
Ricks has campers who come every year, and some that attend more than one camp during the summer months. “We change it up a little every week so kids coming more than once aren’t doing all the same things. It’s a very special thing to do because there’s very few people that get to do it. And it’s a real special opportunity for kids to explore a different part of themselves.”
For parents looking for something a little more physical for their young ones, themed summer camps at The Little Gym in McAllen may offer just the right challenge. Alton and Delinda Britton have owned and operated the business since January 2005. “We thought it filled a good niche,” Alton said. “We have always been big on fitness so we wanted to get into something that dealt with kids and fitness and that wasn’t medical.”
The Little Gym offers age-appropriate gymnastics programs all year, but starting in June summer camps with flexible schedules kick into gear and run through August. “Our summer camps are a day at a time or you can book a whole week,” he said. “That’s one of the things my moms like about it.”
For youngsters 3 to 9 years old, the Super Quest Camp mixes exercise with themed fun in camps with names like Green Beard’s Pirate Ship, Dance Around the World and Sports of All Sorts. “With the Super Quest there’s a lot of imaginative play and they are very theme based,” Britton said. “And the kids get a lot of exercise. After all, the gym is a big padded room with monkey bars.”
The Skill Thrill camps concentrate more on specific gymnastics skills for children ages 6 through 12. “We start with cartwheels and handstands, those are the basics,” Britton said. “We want to start with those basics and build on that.” Handsprings, vaulting, “no-hands” cartwheels and backflips are on the learning menu for this level of summer camp.
Up to 30 kids can sign up for each of the camps. Britton adds summer employees to give campers personal attention, with as many as 15 instructors on staff. And some of those instructors started out taking classes at The Little Gym when they were younger.
That sense of community is one of the personal rewards for the Brittons. “In the last 13 years we have been a small part of well over 7,000 families,” he said. “It’s hard to go to H-E-B or just about any place and not run into a former student or one of their parents.”
While many summer camps run by businesses lean toward a physical approach, Sylvan Learning Center concentrates on more academic pursuits. At the McAllen location, lead teacher Karen Chapel said helping kids improve reading, math and other skills is at the heart of the Sylvan summer camps, just as it is throughout the year. “I love being with the kids and seeing their excitement, and it’s been that way ever since I’ve been here, for the last 15 years,” she said.
Summer programs run from June through August and feature a wide range of study areas, such as math, reading, handwriting, study skills and ACT/SAT preparation. There’s also a robotics camp, where students build Lego-based models powered by a small electric motor. There’s an alligator that snaps its jaws open and shut, a monkey that plays drums and a lion that roars.
“We already have about 16 students enrolled in the robotics camp,” said educational consultant Dennis Rodriguez. “We will have two camps with 30 students and a teacher-to-student ratio of one-to-eight.” He added that the summer programs all strive to fulfill the company’s vision to “instill pride, confidence and commitment to life-long learning to unleash student potential.” Year-round classes are individually tailored to individual learning needs while the summer camps focus on specific goals.
“I am really proud when the kids improve,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a huge reward that we’re helping out these kids. It just makes you feel good.”
Other popular summer camps include the Space Challenge, where youngsters collaborate on activities that sharpen their science, technology and math skills, and a Game Design Course that teaches basic computer programming through a combination of animation and video game design projects. Most of the camps run Monday through Thursday at varying times of day.
Summer camp opportunities abound throughout the Valley, from South Padre Island to the McAllen area. A good resource to find out more about summer camps for children is the RGV Summer Camps Guide 2018 on the Rio Grande Valley Moms Blog website, riograndevalley.citymomsblog.com.