PictureSteve and Kate’s Camp Mill Valley Director Chas Fricke. Courtesy image.

It’s safe to say that Steve and Kate Susskind have carved out their own unique niche in the ever-crowded world of summer camps. With their acclaimed Steve & Kate’s Camps, they’ve done so by running as fast as possible in the opposite direction of much of the “helicopter parenting” they see that “is threatening a generation of children’s potential.”

“As adults, it’s sometimes easy to forget that we have no idea what our kids are truly capable of,” Steve Susskind says. “We’re on a mission to help kids tap into every ounce of their creative potential by trusting them with the freedom to try, fail, learn and grow. And to do that, we need to rethink what a summer camp even looks like.”
The Susskinds launched Steve & Kate’s Camp 36 years ago here in Mill Valley. They expanded for the first time in 2006, opening a location in Kentfield. And over the past 10 years, they’ve had an incredible amount of growth, and now they have 40+ locations in nine states and serve 28,000 kids a year.

​Instead of rigid schedules and mandatory curricula, Steve and Kate’s lets kids choose their own path from an endless range of technology-enabled creative activities: coding, filmmaking, music-making, dancing, sewing, cooking, sports, and much more. And although helicopter parenting is a more recent trend 

Chas Fricke, a native of the Rockford, Illinois area who has been teaching and working at summer camps in a variety of capacities for more than a dozen years, serves as the director of Steve & Kate’s Camp flagship location at the Tam Valley Elementary School.

Fricke says Steve & Kate’s approach is a much-needed throwback to a simpler time. “It sort of reminds me of the neighborhood where I grew up in, where i could come home from school and just head outside to play with friends and do whatever,” Fricke says. “It wasn’t the over-scheduled situation that many kids have these days.”

And while they’ve created a new “Launchpad” program “for kids who need help getting used to choosing their own adventure, offering a guided learning path to help them get comfortable with all of the activities at camp,” there are no shortage of activities, including a number of new programs in 2016: 

  • Hacker’s Heaven: Kids build and program their own robots, or build their own apps from scratch.
  • Filmmaking: They’ve created custom-built rugged iPad rigs so that kids can shoot, edit and share their own live-action films, building on the stop-motion animation technology that kids already use to create their own masterpieces.
  • Dance Box: We’re prototyping our brand new Dance Box, an LEDpowered studio that lets kids “dance like no one’s watching” in a judgment-free space. Fewer dance instructors, more self expression.
  • Rockstars: Steve & Kate’s music studio has been decked out with new instruments, like synthesizers and digital guitar jam sticks, and it’s been synced with GarageBand so that kids can easily mix and share their ballads.

The premise behind each of these elements is to give kids a safe, technology-enabled space to take creative risks, Fricke says. “The kids get to decide what engages them and explore that space,” Fricke says. “The counselors are there to help the camper with questions, but they’re just giving the kids the opportunity to make their own choice and they learn to trust their own judgment.”

“Parents are just looking for a place where their kids can just be a kid,” he adds.

To make sure they have plenty of energy to do just that, Steve & Kate’s hired chef Ryan Smith as their in-house chef and food program designer. The San Jose native told the Pacific Sun that his goal “is to make every single item a well-balanced meal. The opportunity to feed kids and give them insight to where their food comes from was too compelling to pass up.”

Smith says he serves as much organic and clean-label food as possible, and he’s incorporating and substituting ingredients to provide healthier, more nutrient-dense meals. Smith told the Sun that he’s also mindful to keep many dishes familiar, but he might swap out mayonnaise for a puréed chickpea hummus or a roasted red pepper spread. He calls it “stealth nutrition.

Steve & Kate’s have wracked up an abundance of praise over the years, most notable from fellow Mill Valley resident and Academy Award-winning writer/director of Pixar‘s Finding Nemo and WallE Andrew Stanton: “The children that attend Steve and Kate’s blossom and discover a freedom of identity that, in a way, no other institution I’ve experienced has ever managed. Kids find their thumbprint at Steve and Kate’s. My one complaint is: Where were they when I was a kid?”

The 411: Steve & Kate’s Camp in Mill Valley is at Tam Valley Elementary School, 350 Bell Lane, from June 20 to August 12. Parent can buy day passes in blocks of 1, 5 or 20, as well as full summer memberships. Email them with questions.

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