We spoke with Margot and Craig Perlmutter, directors at Camp Tamakwa. Located in Algonquin Park, this overnight summer camp founded in 1936, has been attracting young campers (and staff) from around the globe. We found out about the strong spirit that sets this camp apart, how they manage the dietary requirements for each camper, and how to cure nature deficit disorder.
When was your first visit to Algonquin park?
Craig and I both grew up at Tamakwa and attended as both campers and staff. My first visit to the park was the first day of 2nd session in the summer of 1986. I vividly recall the first time I stepped off the boat and was introduced to my counselors and cabin mates. Some of my best friends today are the girls I met on that very first day.
Does going to camp all summer cure Nature Deficit Disorder?
How can it not?! The break from smart boards, computers, cell phones, tablets, etc, coupled with the ability to spend 2-8 weeks in nature is the best medicine/cure a parent can provide to their children to try to manage this deficit. In the city, I use various methods to relax and unwind at the end of the day, but at camp, I just jump in the lake. Nothing decompresses the mind and relaxes my body more. (this is a great link to learn more about offsetting “screen time” with “nature time” and the wide range of benefits this has for kids’ physical and mental health)
You have a “no screen” policy, why?
Electronics and the camp experience, in our opinion, do not go hand in hand. Campers and staff are bombarded by electronics, social media and various pressures at home, so when they arrive at camp, we want them to break free and simply enjoy the outdoors. They all need to get back to the basics of talking face to face, playing sports, using their hands to throw a pot on a clay wheel, not to text/email friends. Actually talking and having face-to-face conversations can only improve social skills in today’s world, whereas posting, texting and emailing is so prevalent and overused. Algonquin Park is our backyard and we want to take advantage of every minute we have in this glorious setting. We encourage kids to develop hard activity skills, but also soft life skills such as living in a large cabin group with your peers and dealing with issues face to face, not screen to screen. (adults need this too!)
How is the Tamakwa experience different than other camps?
I am sure everyone believes that their camp is unique and special but I truly believe deep in my soul that there is no place like Tamakwa. The camp spirit, tradition and family atmosphere is unparalleled to any other camp I’ve seen. There is an immediate sense of belonging – the feeling that you have been welcomed into a safe and nurturing environment that is unlike anywhere else. I noticed this as a young camper in 1986, and I still notice it today. I also believe that due to our smaller camp size, we have the ability to really take the time to get to know not only every camper and staff, but also our camp parents. We know it’s a big leap of faith for parents to send their kids away, and we’re committed to helping ease campers into the overnight world. We do many home visits in Toronto and Michigan, and also travel to Montreal, Ohio, New York, Chicago and LA to host open houses and have the opportunity to meet face to face with many of our families on an annual basis. Vic (our Senior Director), Craig and I are always available to chat with families and answer any questions or concerns they might have.
Why is an overnight camp better than a day camp?
Nothing compares to the personal growth you can achieve when you have the freedom to be yourself. Learning to do things on your own and simply living 24/7 with peers is unlike anything you experience at home. Day camp is great for many campers and you certainly have fun, get outside and learn great activity skills, but the bonds you create living with friends (and even those you wouldn’t necessarily be friends with at home) are priceless and the experience is invaluable. Learning to work as a team, whether it’s cleaning your cabin, or traversing a huge lake on a cabin canoe trip prepares you for many similar challenging situations growing up. I have certainly witnessed this first hand working in the “real world”. Adults who didn’t grow up at camp often find it harder to adjust to a work environment where they are surrounded by individuals with different opinions or conflicting personalities. Overnight camp prepares you for these different dynamics.
How do you deal with all of the allergies and special dietary needs of so many campers and staff every meal, every day?
It’s definitely becoming a bigger part of our day to day camp life. Our special dietary needs protocol begins well in advance of camp when we work directly with the camper’s parents to understand the full extent of the allergies or special dietary needs. Everyone is involved to ensure the safety of our campers from our Head Staff, Medical Team, Counselors, Kitchen Supervisor, Kitchen coordinator and the camper themselves. We then have a multi-step process each day where the counselor for each special dietary needs camper will check in on the meals for that day and coordinate what special food may be required. We also follow a similar process with our trip staff and medical team when a camper is set to go on a canoe trip. (just to be very clear, they absolutely, and kindly accommodate my food rules for my kids, and my daughter’s nut allergy – and yes, that’s an endorsement!)
You only allow biodegradable soaps. Is that your commitment to doing better or someone else’s rule?
I believe it’s our rule, but in truth, I can’t imagine ever doing anything else, so it’s never really been about being obligated to enforce this rule. One Tamakwa adage has always been to “leave your campsite cleaner than you found it”. We teach Tamakwans to live by this saying while on trip, at camp and hopefully at home. Bend down and pick up garbage, turn off lights, reduce, reuse, recycle and try in whatever small way you can to keep Tamakwa green, as well as the world around us. (If you have a great soap to add to our list, let us know!)
How young should you ship your kids off to camp?
We’ve seen campers come to Tamakwa at the age of 7 and stay for 8 weeks without ever slowing down and we’ve seen campers begin at 12, 13, 14 or even 15. Of course the most common starting age is usually those campers finishing up grades 2 or 3, especially because we offer a 2 week Junior Tamakwan program for that age group. I find when someone starts expressing some interest, asking questions and generally showing some sign of excitement about the idea of going to camp, then that’s usually a great time to begin the discussion, and visit us for our Tamakwa Teaser to get a feel for our camp experience.