Summer engagement ideas for teens

Esha Clearfield, M.A. and M.P.Aff., is the founder and president of Enriched Family in Austin. This local business provides parents with the information, tools, and systems they need to organize their families and thrive. Drawing on her expertise in research, project management, and family organization, Esha helps busy parents with a wide variety of practical, comprehensive family supports and solutions, particularly family resource research (including camps, enrichment activities, childcare and schools, college comparisons and help managing the college application process, and more!) as well as personal, family, and small business organization services (organizing spaces and developing organization systems). We invited Esha to deploy her considerable research skills to the topic of summer engagement opportunities for teens and share her best ideas here. Thanks, Esha!

In my work with families, I often hear how difficult it is for parents to ensure that their teenagers are engaged over the summer break. Many parents have pointed out that it is hard to find camps whose programming is tailored to this age group, and often teens think of camps as being for “little kids” and are therefore resistant to attending. In this brief article, I focus on several local summer teen engagement resources, including camps that offer Counselor-in-Training (CIT) programs, as well as suggestions for volunteer, internship, and job opportunities.

Photo by  Liam Macleod  on  Unsplash

Camp Counselor-in-Training (CIT) Programs

Many camps offer CIT programs—a great opportunity for teens to develop leadership skills and receive training as camp counselors. These programs are typically low-cost and fun, and they look great on a resume or college application. Here are a few Austin opportunities:

  • The Austin Nature & Science Center CIT program prepares teens (ages 15–17) to assist adult camp counselors in leading activities. There is a one-day training that equips CITs with the skills to become outstanding leaders by covering such topics as safety, child development, games, and songs. This popular program helps teenagers develop a sense of responsibility while increasing self-confidence. Participants can register for a maximum of 2 CIT camp sessions (each session is two weeks long: M–F, 8am–5pm). There are currently spots in the 6/24–7/5 & 8/5–8/16 sessions (the other June and July sessions are on a wait list). The cost of each two-week session is $198 for Austin residents. Register on the Austin Nature & Science Center website here.

  • The Austin Sunshine Camps CIT program is available to 15–18-year-olds who meet the qualifications (live in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Caldwell, or Bastrop county and qualify for the school free or reduced lunch program or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] or are in foster care), demonstrate the ability to become a leader in their community, and are interested in becoming a camp counselor when they turn 18. There is no cost for the CIT program. Email for more information.

  • The Thinkery CIT program is available to teenagers (ages 13–18) who will work closely with Thinkery staff mentors to lead fun, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math)–based activities in Thinkery summer camps. Individual goals are set to ensure each participant develops new skills and gains valuable work experience that is transferable to future academic and career endeavors. If selected, applicants must commit to attending a series of training sessions. All selected applicants must agree to one week of the mandatory training dates and a minimum of 2 weeks of CIT camp support hours. Application is here. Deadline is May 1. There is a $10 program fee.

Photo by on  Pexels

Photo by on Pexels

Volunteer Opportunities

A number of Austin organizations that focus on connecting youth to local nonprofits are in need of volunteers. Included below are a couple of examples:

  • Generation SERVE, whose mission is to “engage children in volunteerism and empower them to make a difference in their communities,” offers a summer Youth Leadership Program for middle and high school students. Teens selected for the program are trained in group facilitation, communication, problem solving, nonprofits, and fundraising. Teens then put this learning into action by leading or co-leading Generation SERVE’s Family Volunteering Activities and designing service projects to benefit the community. The fee for this program is $170–$200. For additional information and to apply for the program, click here. The application deadline is April 12.

  • If your teen is interested in summer volunteering but cannot commit to the Youth Leadership Program, Generation SERVE also offers one-time volunteer opportunities for teens in 6th–12th grades in the form of Teen Service Days, during which teens volunteer alongside their peers without a parent or guardian. These events give teens experience with volunteer projects in support of many different nonprofit organizations and community needs. Details and registration information can be found here.

  • Austin Habitat for Humanity also offers a variety of Youth Volunteer Opportunities, including painting, landscaping, planting trees, construction, home repair, and more, all depending on the age of the teen. Click here for information.

Other Volunteer/Internship Opportunities

Summer is a great time for teens to participate in formal or informal internships matched to their interests. For example, if your teen is interested in art, they could look into volunteer or internship opportunities at local art galleries. If your teen is interested in medicine and health, many hospitals have junior volunteer programs or summer volunteer programs for teens, ages 15–18. In addition, the City of Austin has a variety of Youth Volunteer, Internship, and Employment Opportunities they could explore here.

Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Job/Entrepreneurship Opportunities

Why not encourage your teen to explore some entrepreneurship activities over the summer? They could build and brand their own babysitting, lawn mowing/lawn care, dog sitting/walking, or odd jobs business. Or perhaps they could find a part-time or full-time job, depending on their other summer responsibilities.

 Happy summer!

Esha Clearfield
Enriched Family

Austin writing camps keep kids’ creativity thriving in the summer and all year long

Austin Bat Cave student group.jpg


Because of Jenna and other volunteers from Austin Bat Cave, my words finally feel important. Through her tending and caring, my writing blossomed into something I could never have imagined. Now that I’m in college I feel especially thankful for my Austin Bat Cave experience, which taught me skills that translated into my academic writing and make even my informative papers more engaging. The most important thing is for kids to write and express themselves. The best stories are those that make us laugh and cry, and the most memorable are the original ideas which make us stop and think, or help us see the world in a new way, and therefore both types of writing are essential. Austin Bat Cave understands that.

—Xochi, an Austin Bat Cave alum, and the first in her family to attend college


One of the things writers do, especially when they don’t want to start a new project, is read books and listen to podcasts and lectures about writing. I do it all the time. One of the notions I come across most often in discussions of the craft is, “I really don’t know what I think until I start writing,” or “The process of writing itself shapes my arguments, my characters, my plot.” Even writers who create detailed outlines before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard usually admit that the story they finish is very different from the one they started. When I decided to write a blog post about creative writing workshops and camps for kids in Austin, I learned this lesson again.

Ali Haider, program director at Austin Bat Cave (ABC), told me that when kids in their writing workshops learn to analyze how stories and poems are put together, they take that understanding on to everything else they study in school or read and see out in the world. If a student can learn to analyze and then write her own science fiction story, she can also learn to dissect an argument in a history book and write an essay about it—or critique a politician’s speech.

In the experiences offered by Austin Bat Cave and the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation’s Badgerdog program, writing coaches demystify paragraphs and sentences, and students learn how stories are built from scratch. Ali’s approach at ABC reminds me of a tinkering workshop where budding engineers might learn to take apart and put together a toaster or a computer motherboard, gaining an understanding of how things work and the power to create their own entirely new inventions in the process.

World Gone Gray
     by Kurion Terrance, an Austin Bat Cave 7th grader
When the ice starts to shiver,
When the fire starts to fade,
When all the water’s in the river,
When you finally get paid.
The world gets cold and gray,
The sea no longer beautiful,
The night is in the day,
Beauty no more, the Earth is dull.
The world is cold or heartless,
It feels like hope is lost,
The smart one from the smartest,
Can’t even help our cause.
The underdog can’t save us all,
’Cause no one seems to care,
The pretty birds no longer call,
This world I cannot bear.

At Austin Bat Cave, about 1,700 students a year get creative in writing classes at participating schools, weekend workshops, and summer camps. Groups are kept small so that the one-on-one mentoring ABC values so highly can happen. “All writers need a good guide and mentor. So ABC builds workshops around one-on-one coaching and feedback,” says Ali.

“We’re lucky that Austin is the perfect place for an organization like ours,” Ali explains. “We have about 50 volunteer mentors each spring and fall, and about 40 more during the summer. They’re really teaching artists—people who write for a living themselves or have a lot of experience in creative writing or journalism and want to give back. They have a passion for storytelling, and it’s hard for kids not to get excited when their mentors are excited.”

At Badgerdog, manager Cecily Sailer finds a similarly talented group of writers fueling her camps and workshops. “Austin is home to a robust writing community,” she says. “Many of the teaching artists in our program are graduate students in the UT Michener Center or New Writers Program or Texas State Creative Writing Program.” Badgerdog’s summer camps and workshops are held in libraries, schools, and community centers all over the city.

Ali works with volunteers to prepare a curriculum that’s fresh each semester and interdisciplinary, brainstorming projects that encourage kids to make paintings, podcasts, or compile zines to showcase their stories. “We want to have projects each student can walk away with, and we want to reach different kinds of learners, so variety is important. Plus each school and each group of students is unique, so flexibility is key.”

Are there any constants in all the variety? “The one-on-one time is something we give all students because we know it’s important and something most teachers don’t have time enough to do. Feedback is important for the growth of a writer. The other constant is that we make sure each student has a notebook to keep—and we provide them if the school can’t afford them.”

Breath Notes
    by Emma Baumgardner, a Badgerdog middle schooler
I shape my way with movement
emerging in my throat
and slowly thread the needle
of song.
Bursting to breathe
open my lungs
sound takes moments. Standing
I move to the will of the way
my tongue clicks.
Lips hum,
body sways,
head resonates, bubbling.
And voices cling together,
linking arms,
thumbs pressed against index fingers.
Melody paints piano keys,
never grounded.
Lights pinch our eyes
Laced with sweat,
we burn
with the moment
of performing.
Teeth engulfing our sorrows
like we have wings.
Fourteen of us
living on the stage.
With our passion for music
curling around our chins
and stretching to our ears,
we smile.
We’re not going to be finished
as long as we carry
the note.

In Badgerdog’s many summer writing camps, each classroom has no more than 15 campers. A typical day might start with a free-writing exercise with sharing time afterward. Kids have structured lessons related to some aspect of fiction or poetry, followed by some time to stretch and relax and have a snack. Reading together and playing language games usually rounds out the day.

Even if campers start out as reluctant writers, Cecily says the welcoming, fun, and supportive environment inspires them. “The lessons are less about ‘You will like poetry!’ and more about asking what patterns they notice or why they think the writer decided to repeat herself. We approach learning more as an investigation, an inquiry, rather than a top-down hand-off of knowledge.”

Badgerdog’s philosophy is to offer kids options, not rules. “We show them how writers break rules effectively, and encourage them to take risks. We celebrate weirdness and new ideas, and take the pressure off the writing process,” she explains. “This go-for-it approach helps reluctant writers discover they have talent and interesting ideas and builds their confidence.”

Cecily also explains why Badgerdog emphasizes reading aloud as a way of sharing what the students have created. “Writing becomes immediately more meaningful when it’s read and enjoyed by someone else. It becomes even more real, it lives outside the page it’s written on and inside the imagination of another human being. Reading your own work aloud helps you hear yourself. It’s validating. You take ownership of something you created and then people tell you what it meant to them. It’s about connection and increasing the power of your work. What if Steve Jobs designed the iPhone and then put the plans in a box at the bottom of his closet? What if Prince played all of his songs alone his bedroom?”

I asked both Cecily and Ali if they have any writing tips for parents or kids who aren’t able to attend a camp. Cecily said, “Do anything that interests you enough to keep you writing, whether it’s journaling, writing down all the stuff your brother says, creating an imaginary place where you’re the boss of everything. Like any other skill, practice counts. Playing what if can be another helpful approach. Write for awhile about some absurd scenario. What if toasters spit out pizzas? What if traffic lights started flashing purple? What if your dog was actually helpful? Trying to imagine something unreal forces you to think of details, which is what makes writing powerful for the reader.”

Ali believes in always starting slow. It’s daunting for anyone to sit down in front of a blank page and try to conjure a story, so ABC mentors begin by building relationships and doing world-building and character-building exercises. Parents and their kids can do that too. “We do a lot of work with the building blocks of writing, and that’s more fun than just drafting a story from scratch. At one school students start by making maps and globes about the  worlds they will write about, and the next step is thinking about their characters and all their quirks.”

If you’re ready to stop reading about writing and sign up to WRITE, check out the programs, and consider donating to help them keep thriving.

Shelley Sperry


Media Monday: Come on, bring the noise! Girls rock, and so do boys

The clatter and crowds of SXSW are gone, spring is here, and that means it’s really time to get the kids signed up for summer camps, before they fill up. The number and variety of music-related camps in Austin is pretty overwhelming, and it’s not possible to talk about them all, but here’s a sampling that may get you started.

Most of the music camps in and around Austin lean toward rock and allow young musicians to improve their skills, play in bands, and learn a little about recording and mixing music, sometimes with a little songwriting thrown in. Rock camps include the intimate Eastside Music Summer Camp, the much larger University of Texas Longhorn Music Camps, Lone Star School of Music’s Little Rock Camp, Band Aid School of Music’s Summer Rock Camp, Rock Lab School of Music Camps, and of course, the Austin School of Rock camps.

If you’re into empowering girls with guitars and amps, check out the Girls Rock Austin summer camps. Theyre operated by a nonprofit dedicated to diversity and music education.

Beyond these staples of headbanging summer fun, there are a few smaller camps that you may want to investigate too:

Blue Frog School of Music offers songwriting, performance, and recording camps in its homey location near the Austin Waldorf School. 

Velocity Music Academy has a wide variety of camps for all ages, focused on learning to play the piano, guitar, violin, and other instruments.

Orpheus Academy of Music Summer Camps are offered all summer and range from world music to broadway to introductory instrument classes.

TexArts camps focus on musical theater.

Paramount Theatre hosts a small songwriting camp for kids in grades 6–10.

Creative Action, a nonprofit group of teacher-artists, has a variety of art- and music-themed summer camps planned for this year, including Broadway or Bust and The Studio: Performer camp, all about writing, mixing, and performing music.

If you live near beautiful Wimberley, Agua Fresca Studios camps all combine visual art with music. They’ve got a Ukelele and Drum Camp for ages 9–12, a Music Camp for ages 10 and up, and an Art and Music Extravaganza camp for little ones 6–8 years old.

For kids who love percussion instruments, Ratamacamp offers camps at area public schools for middle and high schoolers.

The Austin Girls’ Choir has an early June camp for beginning singers and a mid-June camp for advanced singers. Both introduce girls to many music genres, from classical to pop.

And if you have a kid who loves chamber music and wants to play in small groups, the Austin Chamber Music workshop is the place to be.

Most music camps in the area are day camps, but if your student wants an overnight experience you’ll want to explore Texas Jaam Camp on the Guadalupe River in the Hill Country in July. Music styles will range from bluegrass and cajun to jazz and Western swing.

Shelley Sperry

Media Monday: Summer camps where young cinephiles can shine

Whether we love it, hate it, or just dread the crowds, we all know that the creative explosion of SXSW is a defining event in Austin. In the lead-up to the 2017 marathon of events, I thought I’d look atwhat kids who are inspired by the film, music, and comedy festivals can do to take the leap and become active creatives themselves. After the professionals take down their screens, unplug their amps, and fold up their boxes of props, where can your kid go to learn more?

First up: Possibilities for young filmmakers in Austin. All these programs are currently open for registration for the summer.

  • Your go-to site for information about Summer Camps for aspiring filmmakers is Summer @Austin Public. This organization is run by the Austin Film Society and allows kids to work with local filmmakers on live-action and animated projects, as well as TV shows. Camp themes include comedy, action-adventure, special effects, sci-fi/fantasy, and more. The kids don’t have to have any prior experience and don’t have to bring their own equipment—it’s all provided.
  • UT Film and Media Youth Camps are offered during spring break and during the summer by the university’s Department of Radio-Television-Film. They take place right on campus. Animation and claymation, screenwriting, and documentary filmmaking are some of the topics on offer this year. HURRY! Discounts for summer end March 3!
  • Austin School of Film has two-week Youth Summer Film Camps in June, when students ages 9 to 12 and 13 to 18 get a chance to learn a variety of techniques. Kids produce their own projects and screen the final product at the end.

If you know of more programs for young screenwriters, directors, costumers, or other cinemaniacs, please let us know in the comments and we’ll add to the list!

And if your son or daughter is interested in filmmaking, consider attending the screening of the Youth Animation & M.A.F.I.A. films on March 14, 2017 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.  You'll see films created by kids ranging from 8 to 18 years old, and all made in under 24 hours.

Next week we’ll look at music camps, and as the festival begins, we’ll explore the world of comedy and improv for kids who want to take the stage.

Shelley Sperry

A way outside of the box

Zach Hurdle is director of math education at Skybridge Academy in Dripping Springs and a PhD candidate in mathematics education at Texas State University. He joins us on the blog to share some of his own journey as a learner and educator, as well as his thoughts on how students really feel about math and learn it best. He also invites Austin-area teens and tweens to a unique summer camp he’s co-leading with Skybridge social studies director Tyler Merwin.

I grew up in a traditional public school system in north Dallas. I was thrown into a competitive blender full of students I sometimes knew, but mostly didn’t, and was one of hundreds in what would end up being a graduating class of 1,167. I didn’t have relationships with most of my teachers. Sometimes I wasn’t even sure if they remembered my first name. But then, that’s just what school is for everyone, correct?

Clearly not.

I didn’t know there were places in education like Skybridge Academy. Sure, alternative education is alive and thriving in Austin, but it wasn’t until I got an opportunity to teach mathematics at this private school that I realized we could make a place for those kids who think outside of the box and want learning to be an experience rather than a chore. That’s part of how I have created my teaching strategy: it’s formed as a direct result of the job. I’ve learned as my students have learned.

We focus on relationships in the classroom. Relationships among students, relationships between myself and the students, relationships with mathematics. Strangely enough, math doesn’t have to be some terrible ordeal, created solely to make kids’ lives harder. Once the pressure to understand everything the teacher is telling them is lifted, students realize that they can achieve goals greater than themselves. At Skybridge, we don’t put the pressure of grades on kids. How can they value the process of learning cohesively if there is an underlying need to outscore each other on tests?

What really makes school hard for thinkers is not just that teachers say so much that doesn't make sense, but that they say it in exactly the way they say things that are sensible, so that the child comes to feel—as he is intended to—that when he doesn't understand it is his fault.
—John Holt

Part of what makes the math experience at Skybridge different from others is that students make their way through the curriculum at their own pace. Of course some ideas may be more difficult than others; this is only natural. That’s how life works, and it’s how mathematics works as well. Why should a student struggling with a problem set have to be pushed forward despite minimal understanding for the sake of moving the class forward? Why should students who are excelling at a topic have to pause their process for others to catch up before continuing? Students will learn, as teachers should highly expect, but they will learn from internalizing, self-actualization, confidence, and practice.

Allied to imagination is the notion of engagement. Exercising imagination is inherently engaging, so a classroom in which students use their imaginations to study content, play with ideas, and imagine new possibilities should be an engaging one.
—Alison James & Stephen Brookfield

With this kind of education comes freedom. I don’t experience this freedom alone in lesson planning; the students feel less pressure, too, and can leap to meet high expectations. While we cover material that students throughout the country are expected to learn, we do it in engaging ways: building polyhedrons, evaluating percentages on field trips to stores or restaurants, evaluating the importance of ratios in actual cooking scenarios, to name a few. But at the same time, students also recognize the value in repetition and exercise. They don’t typically hate math, they just hate the system that comes with math. Students hate not knowing how to do something and being expected to grasp it immediately. Wouldn’t you?

Math, Cooking, Reading, Playing: A Summer Camp

I have teamed up with Tyler Merwin, head of social studies at Skybridge, to offer a summer camp because we’ve found that our students miss school over the break! Further, we feel that students outside of the Skybridge community could benefit from taking a glimpse into the culture we share at this school, to test the waters of a different way of learning, so we have opened this camp up to the public as well. The idea started as a math camp, but gradually morphed. It will include group dialogues about social issues, mathematics exercises and activities, and time set aside for reading, cooking practice, outdoor play, video games, and general socialization.

If you (or a young person you know) would like to join in for academic and social rejuvenation over the summer, here are the details:

Dates: July 11–July 15, 2016 (8:30am–4pm)
Ages: 11–18 (middle and high school)
Location: Skybridge Academy, 26450 Ranch Rd 12, Dripping Springs, TX
Cost: $450 (includes lunches)
What to bring: A laptop, snacks, water bottle, reading book
How to sign up: Contact Tyler Merwin, 608-751-2947, or Zach Hurdle, 469-556-9617,

Zach Hurdle