What do rainbow grilled cheese sandwiches, Spongebob Squarepants, volcano eruptions, physical activity routines, and children with mustaches all have in common? All were part of the most recent Pitt’s Kids summer camp program.
For years, the University of Pittsburgh School of Education’s Community Leisure Learn program has organized the Pitt’s Kids summer camp for children ages 7-14 in the Hill District, Oakland, and surrounding communities. The camp keeps them physically active and teaches aquatics skills.
This year, however, the prospects of the program taking place were dimmed by restrictions on in-person gatherings due to COVID-19.
“It truly broke our hearts when we found out that our summer camp was cancelled,” says JoAnna Dehler, the Pitt’s Kids program director. “We knew that we had to try our best to adapt to the ever-changing coronavirus reality. So, with a lot of work, plenty of Zoom calls, and a bit of luck, we were able to create a new identity for Pitt’s Kids: a 100% virtual summer camp.”
Dehler worked with Kyle Kenia, director of the Community Leisure Learn program, to develop eight weeks of new programming. Their challenge? How to keep the children engaged and learning in fun ways at home for three hours per day.
“Our virtual program still had the goal of keeping kids mentally active, but we were excited to see what else we could do,” says Kenia. “We worked out more than I have ever worked out; we played a ton of games (both fitness games and boardgame-like games); we cooked; we used fitness apps; we talked about health and nutrition; we meditated; we did a variety of science experiments; and we totally crushed some arts and crafts.”
The Community Leisure-Learn Program was initiated by the University of Pittsburgh’s Community and Governmental Relations over 50 years ago, making it the oldest outreach program on campus.
The program’s mission of keeping children active during summer took on new meaning during the pandemic.
“When you're confined to your house, you really aren't elevating your heart rate or using your muscles a whole lot,” says Kenia, a graduate of the school’s Master of Science in Health and Physical Activity program. “We decided to see how crazy we could get, and we wanted to see how many activities we could run all from a computer screen that would excite kids and get them to exercise and move while having fun.”
Kenia, Dehler, and their Pitt student volunteers Shannah Mallet, Olivia Miller, and Michaela Burton provided programs that kept kids active.
There were lots of laughs during zany themed dress-up days (mustache day and cartoon day were the favorites). Students also learned new things like cooking and science experiments. But, the program facilitators also did so much more for the kids during these challenging times.
“We made sure to take time to talk with the kids and let them talk, and let all of us be silly and just be crazy quarantine people,” says Dehler. “The thing I am proudest of is that we were all able to make friendships this summer—real friendships with people that we all really miss.”
Kathleen Gallagher, whose 11-year-old grandson, Erik, participated in the summer camp, agreed.
“He told me he missed his friends from the Pitt’s Kids sessions. I asked if he knew anyone personally and he told me that he did not,” says Gallagher. “That kids can feel that they have made friends that they miss in these difficult days is an accomplishment in itself. This was such a great program for children, who have missed out on so many of the usual summer activities.”
The fall session of the Pitt’s Kids camp, also in a virtual format, will begin the week of September 21, 2020. There are two different program offerings: one focused on fun games and activities related to fitness and being active and another that blends fun activities, STEM, and cooking.
“Of course, both us and the kids yearn for in-person programming, but until the time comes, we are thrilled that we have this opportunity to keep moving, to stay motivated, and to stay close, even though we may be far apart,” says Dehler.
Thanks to Dehler, Kenia, and their team, the Pitt’s Kids program gave children the opportunity to have fun and meet new friends during a time when it would not have been possible otherwise.
Registration for the fall session of the Pitt’s Kids program is open at cll.pitt.edu.