TORONTO -- Most of Canada’s 1,000 overnight summer camps are many decades old and this is the first year their cabins will be empty, dining halls will be silent and sports fields will go unused.

About a million Canadian kids who attend overnight camps each summer will be making do with virtual campfires, and camp activities in their own backyard.

Where day camps are happening, they will look very different and much less carefree – no mingling outside an assigned group or “bubble,” no rowdy bus rides to and from camp, no field trips.

Campers will get frequent instruction in hand-washing and have their temperatures taken regularly. They won’t get swimming lessons, because that would entail separating campers by swim level, rather than bubble groups, and some camps say they will limit group singing, out of a fear that it is a risk for spreading the virus.

The quintessential Canadian experience of sleepaway camps is yet another in a long list of casualties of COVID-19. The loss is a blow for kids who didn’t get to say goodbye to friends and teachers and have missed out on parties, graduations, proms, sports and other extra-curriculars.

“For a lot of kids and staff, they are going through a grieving process right now,” said Danial Sprintz, executive director of Camp Massad, a Jewish camp just outside Winnipeg.

Sprintz went to Hebrew language camp as a child, trained there as a counsellor and even his own kids have spent summers there.

“This is a place where children first have some freedom from their parents, where they learn some independence. It’s a safe place to make mistakes and build character.”

Overnight summer camps have been cancelled in much of the country, including B.C., Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. Only New Brunswick is allowing overnight camps right now. Some provinces, including Manitoba and Saskatchewan have included overnight camps in future phases of reopening but not attached a timeline.

“We are very saddened that this is what it has come to and our hearts go out to our families and communities,” Camp Warwa in Alberta posted on its website.

“It is hard to imagine a summer without camp.”


Most provinces are allowing day camps to carry forward, under strict capacity, sanitation and physical distancing guidelines. But many operators determined they can’t operate under the restrictions and closed down for the year, says Stephane Richard, president of the Canadian Camping Association.

The detailed plans of Adventure Valley Day Camp in Thornhill, Ont. are a glimpse into how operators are coping in a pandemic reality. The camp is reducing its camper capacity by 75 per cent, imposing a maximum of eight kids and two instructors per group, and restricting interactions between groups.

Each group will have one designated shaded area outside, with its own picnic table, sport, art and cleaning supplies. Kids will eat lunch only with their own groups.

The camp has installed outdoor hand-washing stations and assigned dedicated staff to the disinfection of equipment, washrooms, and water stations. Any equipment that is shared will be dumped into brightly coloured “to be sanitized” bins.

The camp will allow no visitors and has eliminated busing. Families will have assigned drop-offs and pick-ups to minimize crowding. Each camper will have their temperature taken daily before they exit their vehicle.

Campers at Pedalheads bike camps in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec will be given a health screening each day and will stay in bubbles or cohorts of five to six. Full-camp games and activities will be scrapped.

“We are fortunate that about 95 per cent of our programming is outdoors in school yards, parks, community centres and sports fields,” said Ben Hall, field operations manager, who was overseeing setting up a Montreal camp when he spoke to

Summer campPedalheads is operating its biking skills and safety day camps in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec this summer. (Courtesy Pedalheads)

Instead of weekly bike cleaning, kids will wipe down their bikes daily and equipment that can’t easily be sanitized will be sidelined.

“Our biggest challenge will be maintaining physical distancing and keeping kids spread out. We are using hula hoops on the ground to remind them where they have to stay when they aren’t riding.”

Demand is strong for Pedalheads camps, which also include swim and other sports versions, says Hall. He says parents are anxious to get kids out of the house and interacting with peers.

“They are looking for a bit of normalcy right now.”

Some overnight camp operators, including Camp Massad in Manitoba, are making plans to roll out day camps at some point this summer. That means ramping up vigilance around hygiene and figuring out how physical distancing will work.

“We are trying our best to recover some of the summer and to give our kids some experience at our camp,” said Sprintz. “Our parents are already saying their kids are Zoom-ed out.”


But in this 2020 summer, the traditions of sleepover camp – games, arts and crafts, skit nights, campfires and camp songs – will only live online. It’s ironic, given that one of the hallmarks of the camp experience is to get kids out into the great outdoors and leave their devices at home.

“Camp is happening no matter what. Camp operators have been really creative and determined about maintaining their communities of campers,” Richard said during a phone interview from Saint-Antoine, N.B.

The three Easter Seals camps in B.C., which see up to 1,000 kids a year with a range of medical conditions, and cognitive and physical disabilities, are offering activities online, including talent shows, singalongs and movie nights.

Summer campEaster Seals Canada has cancelled 14 overnight camps across Canada for summer 2020 that host more than 6,000 children living with disabilities each year. (Courtesy Easter British Columbia & Yukon)

It’s something, but it’s not the same as gathering together in the outdoors, says the director of the camps James Gagnon.

“It’s certainly been pretty sad. For a lot of our campers, it’s their favourite week of the year,” he said from Lake Country near Kelowna.

“We will do our best to have fun and just hope that next year will be normal.”

When pandemic lockdowns took hold, Code-it-Hacks coding, robotics and engineering camps shifted day-long camps to online. The Toronto-based organization has been perfecting its model since, says owner Shirin Merchant, and is going to stick to virtual even though the province is allowing day camps to open.

“It’s very difficult to socially distance when you’re looking over screens together. And our play-based coding methodology requires a lot of physical interaction.”

Merchant says she’s pleased with the online results of her camps and now has registrants from all across Canada, the U.S. and beyond. She says virtual offerings will be a permanent addition when in-person camps return.

Even if closed down for summer sleepaways, some camps are finding a way to connect with families in person.

In addition to continuing the online activities it’s been offering since lockdown was imposed in March, Camp Amy Molson just outside Montreal will soon begin to deliver activities and food for its campers each week to neighbourhood parks in the city.

The camp, which offers subsidized camping experiences, will take produce grown on its farm and create meals for its families, says executive director Shauna Joyce.

The 76-year-old camp in Grenville-sur-la-Rouge is also exploring opening for day camps at some point in the summer.

“If we can have some opportunity for face-to-face connections, that’s important. And our proximity to Montreal makes that at least possible.”


More than 80 per cent of Canada’s summer camps are non-profits, says Richard. Many cater to specific segments, including children with illnesses, developmental conditions or those coming from socially or economically vulnerable homes.

Other camps are oriented to specific passions, including sports and arts.

For many kids, says, it’s the only time they are surrounded by others just like them, says Richard.

“They may feel isolated but camp is the place they build connections.”

Many camps are offering online programs, including Tim Hortons Foundation Camps and Easter Seals.

Summer camp Easter Seals Canada has cancelled 14 overnight camps across Canada for summer 2020 that host more than 6,000 children living with disabilities each year. (Courtesy Easter British Columbia & Yukon)

Everyone agrees virtual just isn’t the same but the real fear is for an industry that relies on two months of the year for 90 to 95 per cent of its income. One lost summer is devastating. But what happens if 2021 looks the same?

“If we have two years of this, the likelihood is that a significant portion of camps won’t survive,” Richard said.

That will imperil employment for about 70,000 youth and young adults and hurt rural communities that rely on the economic activity generated by camps. It will also mean many fewer kids will get the opportunity for the fun, life skills and personal growth that come with going to camp.


Camp experiences impart important attributes in young people, including an appreciation of physical activity, environmental awareness, self-confidence, maturity, and self-regulation, along with building a network of friendships, says Troy Glover, a professor who has researched summer camps.

That value was universal and found in boys and girls of all ages, backgrounds and in all parts of the country, says Glover, who conducted a three-part national study in 2012.

“A lot of the gains made in a camp experience far outlived the experience itself,” said Glover, director of the Healthy Communities Research Network at the University of Waterloo.

“And many of the lessons of camp are camouflaged by the fun experience. It’s really powerful.”

Exercising some independence from parents, being mentored by young adults, and gaining skills, knowledge and values at camp – whether day or overnight versions – comes at a critical time in a child’s development, says Glover.

While many camps are rolling out online programming, Glover says it can’t replicate the authenticity of an in-person experience and he worries what that will mean for the mental and emotional health of children and young people in a time of crisis.

“It’s so important to kids to escape the city and get outside, away from their devices.”

Cindy Bailey says summers at Camp Amy Molson in Montreal have been crucial to giving her four kids life skills and a perspective on the world beyond the digital.

“When they go, they realize there is a whole life out there.”

Summer campCamp Amy Molson in Grenville-sur-la-Rouge, Que. is offering online programming and is rolling out a weekly visit with campers in Montreal parks to deliver food from the camp’s farm. (Courtesy Shauna Joyce, Camp Amy Molson)

Glover says this summer will be also lost for thousands of counsellors, including his older daughter. He says his employment as a counsellor in his youth was a transformative for him.

“It allowed such amazing leadership and personal growth opportunities that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else at that age.”


Corey Mandell vows to keep fighting to open his camp, even if it’s only for a couple of weeks this year.

Mandell went to summer camp at Camp Timberlane in Haliburton, Ont. each summer from the time when was 10, then became a counsellor and then visited each summer to host dances.

He was so attached to the camp that he bought it from the family founders in 2006 and now his four kids are there year after year.

Not having summer camp in 2020 is “terrible for kids mentally, physically and emotionally,” said Mandell, who has delivered a couple of proposals to the Ontario government to reopen his camp to 300 campers, instead of the normal 530.

Camp families would agree to quarantine for 14 days and children would have to pass two COVID-19 tests, including one 72 hours before their arrival to camp and one on-site at registration. Mandell proposes using a rapid test developed by a Guelph, Ont. company that has been approved in the U.S. but not yet in Canada.

Once on site, children and staff are then in a “bubble,” he says. Camp Timberlane own all the property around a lake just south of Algonquin Park. He says that contrasts with day camps in which children interact with others and then go home to their families each night.

He adds that overnight camps are uniquely qualified to handle illnesses, with medical expertise on site and experience in managing outbreaks of a range of viral infections. Mandell says his proposal has been developed in consultation with his own medical staff and with public health physicians.

“We can operate the safest of anyone and yet we’ve been the only industry that has been completely shut down. We can operate as close to no risk as possible,” he told in a phone interview.

“I just want to put people to work, get kids outside and away from their screens and to keep my business alive.”

Amy Torch wouldn’t think twice about sending her three kids to Camp Timberlane if the government reversed course.

“They start their camp countdown from three months out,” said the Thornhill, Ont. resident. “It’s a home away from home.”

As their school, hockey and dance all closed down, they held out hope that camp could happen, says Torch. It’s been difficult for them to accept the shutdown, especially when day camps have been given the green light.

She says children are at low risk from the virus and there are excellent medical staff and facilities on-site, along with a hospital nearby if the illness did arrive.

“I have no doubt they would be safe there. You can see tons of kids gathered in yards and parks and there is no social distancing at all. I know my kids are craving the structure and schedule that camp would bring.”

For all the benefits camp brings, Glover also believes governments should have found a way to allow facilities that could accommodate COVID-19 safety protocols to open. He says parents already put a profound amount of trust in camps to care for their children.

He says he would have examined a plan for this summer and not hesitated to send his kids if he felt it was safe.

“There is risk in having a friend over to the house right now. I think camp would be a safer option than a lot of what I’m seeing in the community right now.”

But Richard says there are so many unknowns about the virus that the general feeling in the camp industry is that it’s better to err on the side of caution.

“I think in March, the majority of camps felt they should be able to open but as the numbers grew and the reality set in, the conversation shifted and there was more acceptance that wouldn’t happen,” he said.

There is a bubble aspect to overnight camps, but “one small miss and it could become a cruise ship scenario. Kids do seem less prone to the effects of COVID, but staff may be vulnerable.”

Parents put extensive trust in camps to care for their children and no operator wants to jeopardize that, he says.

“We have to make the right decisions and that’s why a lot of camps shut down for the summer even before their provincial governments made announcements.”

One mother said her kids love camp, but her worries about the virus will keep them home.

“So for this summer, unfortunately, is (sic) will be no until we see how this continues for next year,” Tara Hart posted on Facebook.


So as camp options have disappeared or shrunk, or as parents wrestle with whether they feel safe sending their kids at all, into the mix have come a number of alternatives help pass an unstructured summer.

When a trio of moms in Toronto realized their kids wouldn’t be going to camp this summer, they came up with Backyard Camp, a free daily newsletter of ideas for activities based on a child’s age and interests, including arts and crafts, science, dance, sports and nature.

“We wanted it to be no cost so that it could be helpful and not put any strain on families,” said co-founder Erin Elfassy. “This is such a crazy, unprecedented time in everybody’s life and everyone is pulled in so many directions.”

The ideas are doable with items around the house or available from a dollar store and they are not just about passing time, they are meant to develop skills and keep kids active and engaged, says Elfassy, a mother of three and an occupational therapist who has worked with children.

“All of us have been a camp counsellor at one time, so we have lots of ideas.”

The team has grown to nine, including teachers and IT experts, who all volunteer their time.

More than 4,000 families have registered, says Elfassy.

Rent-A-Counsellor is the brainchild of event agency owner Bram Goldstein who decided a year without camps would leave parents without many options to get kids outside and off their screens.

“I figured there had to be a way to get kids outside, get counsellors working and make parents happy.”

So he came up with a concept where families or groups of families around the Greater Toronto Area can hire an experienced camp counsellor for a few hours to lead anything from basketball drills in the driveway to tie-dye crafts in the backyard. Counsellors can act as lifeguards and are insured to take children to nearby parks if a backyard isn’t available, says Goldstein.

A session is a two-hour minimum and cost is based on the number of children (a sports or crafts session is $60 for one child for two hours, $70 for two, $100 for four.)

It’s no replacement for camp, says Goldstein. “Summer camp is in my DNA. It’s one of the best places on earth to learn about yourself.”

But his program can help parents needing help to keep their kids occupied, says the father of two girls disappointed that summer 2020 doesn’t include their traditional camp time.

“So, like everyone else, we’ll be making this summer about making new memories.”

Edited by Senior Producer Mary Nersessian