By Tracy Quek , US Correspondent
WHILE other parents are thinking of how to stretch their dollar, Mrs Heather Albrecht is breaking the bank to give her four sons their first summer camp experience this year.
A three-week residential camp in Maine for Connor, 12, and Quinn, 10, plus a series of week-long day camps for five-year-old twins Deegan and Shane will cost US$16,400 (S$23,500).
That kind of spending in lean times may raise eyebrows, but Mrs Albrecht, 44, said the benefits of summer camps are well worth the money.
'They provide safe, nurturing environments where my kids can build self-esteem, socialise with other children, enjoy the outdoors and expend their energy,' said the stay-at-home mum.
As American as apple pie and Thanksgiving, summer camps are a cherished cultural tradition that families are unwilling to give up even in tough times, it seems.
Even as other sectors are struggling to get by in a downturn, parents like the Albrechts are helping to keep the country's US$20 billion (S$28.8 billion) summer camp industry in relatively good shape.
This time every year, some 11 million American youngsters spend all or part of their long school break - which stretches from mid-June to mid-August - at some form of summer camp.
These range from expensive residential camps that can cost upwards of US$10,000 for a seven- or eight-week programme, to shorter week-long day camps costing a few hundred dollars.
It used to be that when kids went off to summer camps, they would spend time hiking, canoeing, swimming in lakes and singing Kumbaya by the campfire.
While those traditional options are still popular, kids these days are increasingly drawn to a newer breed of camps that offer more offbeat experiences.
They can learn to clown around at circus camps, pick up stealth and surveillance techniques at spy camps, and even solve 'murders' with forensic science at Crime Scene Investigation camps.
In the nation's capital, youngsters with ambitions far beyond their age can register for the President for a Week camp run by the Smithsonian Institute. They learn about the United States electoral process, create campaign slogans and posters and even write their own inaugural speeches.
And just as there are camps with religious affiliations, there are camps for children who are agnostic, atheist, or who have just not made up their minds about what to believe in yet.
While by no means immune to the recession, summer camps have reported no drastic drop in enrolment or income from previous years, said Ms Marla Coleman, past president of the American Camp Association which accredits about a quarter of the 12,000 summer camps in the US.
'The money that parents spend on their kids will be the last thing they will cut,' she said.
Reasons for the appeal of summer camps have remained unchanged since the first ones were founded in the late 19th century, said associate professor Leslie Paris, author of Children's Nature: The Rise Of The American Summer Camp.
Concerned that upper-class boys were becoming too coddled in cities, the founders of the earliest camps - devout Christians - felt time in the wilderness would toughen them up.
'The basic principle that children benefit from having an adventure in nature with other children, away from their families but under adult supervision, has remained fairly consistent,' said Prof Paris, who teaches history at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
By the turn of the 20th century, camps for girls - and those run by different religious denominations - had sprung up. By the 1920s, there were radical camps such as those founded for children of American socialists.
In the past 40 years, speciality and theme camps began to flood the market.
'Speciality camps simply reflect a long history of camps serving specific constituencies. The impulse among adults to pass on a heritage and community values remains strong, but the camp industry has been so successful because it has appealed to kids too,' said Prof Paris.
The tremendous draw of summer camps is why parents like Mrs Keisha Kogan, 38, struggled with their decision to say no in these lean times.
To keep her three children occupied, she stayed home and planned inexpensive activities such as free concerts and trips to the library.
Their daily adventures are recorded on an aptly named blog: recessioncamp.blogspot.com.
This article was first published in The Straits Times.