Oars in: Moss Bay Kids Camp Photo credit: Moss Bay
Lake Washington, Puget Sound, Lake Sammamish, Green Lake, Commencement Bay, your local pool: Our cities and neighborhoods are literally surrounded by a multitude of sparkling bodies of water — beautiful to look at, but even more fun to play in. Luckily, there are many local summer camps that make the most of our aquatic landscape, turning the great outdoors into a setting for learning about marine life, boosting water skills and cultivating new ways to stay active in an increasingly sedentary world.
Very young children are drawn to water, and most enjoy splashing in pools and wading into the surf. (Note that early swimming lessons greatly reduce the risk of drowning in young children; see our sidebar for essential water safety tips.) When kids are a bit older and have mastered basic water competency, they may be ready for more advanced aquatic activities. Whether it’s shoving off in a sloop or paddling a kayak through a wildlife-rich wetland, water sports combine exercise, strategy, learning and fun.
We’ve scoured our region’s youth summer camp scene to find top-notch, COVID-safe opportunities for frolicking in the sea, surf, sand and swimming pool.
Why it’s fun: As the sail unfurls and catches a breeze, the hull lifts beneath you and the boat picks up speed, giving your stomach a thrilling flip-flop sensation. Sailing is a tactile, sensory-rich activity that hones both physical and strategic mental skills in kids. And though the sport carries a bit of an elitist rep, community sailing programs make it more accessible to everyone (such as when yacht clubs or park districts own boats that sailors can reserve and use). For attire, skip the red chinos and navy stripes popular back east; Northwest sailors prefer wool and cozy fleece.
Camp to try: Seattle Yacht Club Sailing School hosts sailing camps on Portage Bay that teach kids their way around a sailboat as well as hands-on skills such as steering, tacking, jibing, tying knots and more. “We focus on safety, learning, and fun,” explains programs coordinator Angela Frost. “Kids can gain valuable life skills such as teamwork as well as independence, responsibility and safety, problem solving and a greater respect and understanding of nature.” Children must be able to swim to attend (there’s a swim test given on the first day of class).
Details: Seattle Yacht Club Sailing School is open for 2021 camps, featuring smaller class sizes and mask requirements for all kiddos.
More like this: The Tacoma Yacht Club is also operating this summer; it offers junior sailing camps that cover basic skills and knot-tying techniques. The Vashon Park District runs sailing camps for youths out of Quartermaster Harbor. Sail Sand Point offers a range of camps for youths on Lake Washington at Magnuson Park. Due to COVID-19, Sunday public sails offered by the The Center for Wooden Boats on South Lake Union are currently postponed.
Stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking
Why it’s fun: Stand-up paddleboarding (called SUP) is like surfing, combining the thrill of standing atop the water’s surface with core-building, balance-boosting exercise, but no waves are required. It takes just half a day for kids to learn basic standing maneuvers and paddle strokes, fostering confidence and building strength and balance. A kayak is a small, maneuverable boat you sit in, using a double paddle and body motions to propel yourself forward or to turn. It’s the ideal self-propelled boat for exploring on cold or windy Northwest waters because the enclosed hull prevents it from taking on water (and keeps the paddler dry!). Paddling around a wetland or sheltered bay is also a wonderful way for children to see wildlife such as herons and harbor seals up close.
Camp to try: Moss Bay Kids Camp combines kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and sailing on Lake Union in Seattle. The program is designed for “inside-out learning,” where well-trained staff members take a supportive, low-pressure approach to skill development, helping kids discover for themselves which boating activities they most enjoy. Kids wear life jackets at all times on the water.
Details: Moss Bay Kids Camp is currently filled for 2021.
More like this: Alki Adventure Camps in West Seattle mixes SUP in the mornings with afternoon excursions such as nature hikes. Kids ages 8–11 and 11–16 can practice paddleboarding around Puget Sound, Elliott Bay, Lake Washington and other local bodies of water. Kayak Academy in Issaquah offers kids' classes that teach SUP, kayaking or both along the shores of Lake Sammamish.
Why it’s fun: Rowing (commonly called “crew”) is the ultimate water sport for developing teamwork and camaraderie. There are no star players, as each participant aims to move his or her oar in rhythm with the rest of the team as a single unit. (The coxswain, who sits facing the rowers while steering the shell and sometimes shouting encouragement or directions, acts as the team leader.) Many Puget Sound–area middle schools, high schools and nonprofit rowing centers have youth crew teams, so a week of crew camp can help launch kids into one of the most fun school team sports. Rowing is hard exercise; it helps kids develop upper and lower body strength, stamina and the discipline to wake up well before the crack of dawn to get out on the water for practice.
Camp to try: Lake Union Crew offers a comprehensive introduction to rowing. Participants are schooled in the technical aspects of crew, from stretching to sweeping to sculling.
Ages: 12 and older.
Details: To keep kids COVID-safe, Lake Union Crew's summer program will be focused on single shells.
Swimming and water adventure
Perhaps your child isn’t quite ready to settle on one water sport for an entire week. If that’s the case, try a water adventure camp that provides an assortment of boat-based water science, and swimming activities for sampling. Here are a few standout offerings around the region.
Mount Baker Rowing and Sailing Center hosts weeklong Youth Adventure Camps, which include swimming, paddling, small-boat sailing and water-based field trips to visit the Seattle Aquarium, explore tide pools and comb sandy beaches for treasure. Ages 11–14.
Campers at SAMBICA swim every single day with tubes, banana boats and cool water toys. Other activities include kayaking, canoeing, SUP, wakeboarding and waterskiing. Kids have to pass a swim test to access the deep end or to be allowed to swim without a life jacket. Grades 2–9.
Safe N Sound Swimming usually offers 10 weeks of awesome water-themed adventure camps, but due to the pandemic, they aren't offering camps in 2021. Cross your fingers they'll be back next year! In the meantime, you can still take classes with Safe N Sound Swimming.
Water safety resources
American Red Cross. Find a local provider for Red Cross standard swimming lessons, read about small-boat safety and get water safety tips.
National Safety Council. Read about pool safety and special water safety tips for different age groups.
Can your child tread water or float on his or her back for one full minute? How about exiting the pool without using the ladder? These are two of the five basic “water competency” skills defined by the American Red Cross, and these skills (or variations on them) are an admission requirement for some of these water-themed camps. (The other three critical skills are the ability to jump into water over your head and return to the surface, turn around in a full circle and find an exit, and swim 25 yards.)
Need to fast-track obtaining these skills before summer? Sign your kids up for swim lessons, but do your research. Try a swim center with a long track record and strong reputation, such as Safe N Sound Swimming in Seattle, which teaches kids ages 2–8 to swim through a unique one-on-one method; or Samena Swim & Recreation Club in Bellevue, which offers group lessons and one-on-one lessons taught according to the American Red Cross standard.
Editor's Note: This article was published a few years ago and updated for summer 2021.