The Hillsborough County Parks, Recreation and Conservation Department takes a page from the past with back-to-nature summer camps that offer children the opportunity to put down their cellphones and gut a fish or build a fire. ¶ The county plans five summer programs where children will walk trails, ride bikes, fish, paddle canoes and put up tents — not unlike a generation ago, before Steve Jobs became a household name.
"It might be a throwback to camp we had as kids, but there's reasoning and structure behind doing what we're doing," said Shorty Robbins, recreation service manager.
Robbins said that along with a mix of traditional activities — including campfire building for older kids — the camps will present lessons in environmental stewardship. Kids will learn about wildlife, nature's balance and the hazards of pollution and invasive species.
All of this might sound trite to children growing up in an era of electronic gadgets, social media and pricey, celebrity-studded sports camps. Officials aren't sure what kind of response they will get, but they're hoping the back-to-nature message resonates and encourages the campers to explore parks and preserves after the program ends.
Too often, Robbins said, children spend summers on the couch glued to television screens and computers, or devoting countless hours shuttling between the mall and friends' homes. Nature becomes something seen on YouTube between soccer practice, music lessons, shopping and Facebook postings.
"They might engage in sports, but they've never been to a park. Or they've been outside, but never touched nature," said Robbins, 54. "We have amazing facilities in Hillsborough County and it just made sense to put together a program to introduce kids gently and positively to nature."
The two-week camps will be available to youths 8 to 17, limited to groups of 25 and 50 and divided by age.
Registration will run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at the All People's Life Center, 6105 E Sligh Ave. in Tampa. The cost is $120 per two-week session. No overnight stays are planned, but the county is mulling the idea for next summer.
The plan comes amid budget cuts last fall that forced the county to reduce its summer campsites from about 40 to 10 major regional parks. Officials say the idea for summer camp came as they were looking for ways to adapt to the cuts, but has been brewing for years.
Dave Ramirez, supervisor of the Gardenville Recreation Center in Gibsonton, will run four two-week fishing camps for 50 campers each at Ruskin's E.G. Simmons Park.
Each camper will receive a rod and reel, or they can bring their own, but they can't bring video games, he said. He expects a mix of experience, including novice anglers, and admits that getting teens to leave their virtual world for the real one might be tough.
"It's a challenge," Ramirez said. "I have an 8-year-old son. I try to teach him that there's got to be an equal balance. You've got to have that outdoor component. If you don't have it, you'll be missing out on growing up. You've got to get out there and get dirty."
Campers will learn fishing basics from tying knots and baiting hooks to scaling and gutting their catch. They'll learn about fish species, migratory patterns, acceptable size limits for keepers, how to repair a broken rod and fishing seasons for particular species.
As at the other camps, the kids will paddle canoes, swim and play games, likely in the afternoon when it's too hot to fish. At the session's end, they'll be treated to a chartered fishing trip. Children under 16 won't need fishing licenses.
"If they catch something legal, they can take it home," he said.
A blend of coves and narrow canals, E.G. Simmons is nestled on the southeastern edge of Tampa Bay, rimmed by beaches, fishing spots and environmentally protected mangroves. Included are campsites for trailers, restrooms, boat launches and covered pavilions with picnic tables.
"It's a beautiful spot that not many people know about," Ramirez said.
About five assistants will help him manage the camp and run the fishing classes. Guest speakers will be brought to demonstrate cast-netting and other techniques. Ramirez said he's hoping for a big turnout, but understands the lure of technology.
"My main focus is get kids outside and try something new," he said. "The bottom line is folks like us in the recreation field, we struggle with technology — TVs, cellphones, computers. Don't get me wrong. Technology is great. I don't know how I'd do my job without it. But kids today are losing that outdoor part of their lives. You have to get them away from the computer and away from the TV."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected]