By Jason McLure
HIGHGATE, Vermont (Reuters) - Ten-year-old Max Oreck had been planning to spend much of his summer vacation playing computer games and watching television.
Then his mom told the Asheville, North Carolina fifth-grader he was going to summer camp.
Now Max is learning to wield a melon-baller, carve an orange into a basket-shaped dessert garnish and make flowers out of frosting at the Kids Culinary Camp of Vermont, one of dozens of summer camps that offer alternatives to traditional fare.
"I came for two reasons: I like to cook a lot, and my mom made me," says Oreck, dressed in a chef's hat and smock during a break from preparing grilled bacon and cheese sandwiches in the camp's commercial kitchen.
From high-wire walking to plankton propagation to posture lessons, summer camps are offering an increasingly diverse range of activities compared to the traditional canoe trips, swim lessons and marshmallow-roasting.
The popularity of alternatives is helping fuel growth among the estimated 12,000 summer camps in the United States.
Despite the stagnant economy, revenues at day camps grew by 23 percent between 2008 and last year and by 7 percent at sleep-away camps, according to the American Camp Association, which says the 2,400 organized camps it accredits have combined annual revenues of $2.8 billion.
"We see more specialty camps cropping up every year because there seems to be more of a demand for it," Peg Smith, chief executive of the American Camp Association, said in an email.
That includes demand for activities like pie-throwing lessons, which is how 10-year-old Elsie Harrison, an aspiring clown, concluded her recent stay at a day camp run by Vermont-based Circus Smirkus. Other activities included trapeze, juggling and spinning plates.
Her mother, Laurie Harrison, of Great Barrington, Massachusetts, said the five-hour drive each way for the one-day camp was worth it, despite having to "jump through hoops" to gain admission. Registration for the camp closed within hours after opening last November.
Some camps may help kids figure out what they want to do when they grow up, something their parents often didn't address until after high school.
Ocean chemistry, plankton biology and tidal studies are among the activities offered at Whale Camp on Grand Manaan Island, just across the Canadian border from Maine. For $1,395 campers get a week of activities like puffin photography, sea-kayaking and whale-watching in the Bay of Fundy.
"It's the closest kids can get to actually being a marine scientist before college," says Dennis Bowen, president of the camp. "Once they get immersed in this it really helps them become committed to preservation and conservation."
Meanwhile, kids as young as 7 or 8 years old who are interested in money, business and economics may attend one-week financial literacy day camps offered by the Young Americans Center for Financial Education in suburban Denver.
Activities include lessons on foreign currencies, banking and budgeting, and those 12 and older can also apply for a VISA credit card with a $100 limit issued by the center's bank.
"These are kids who really like to take ownership of their finances," says Katie Payer, a spokeswoman for the camp. "They have an entrepreneurial spirit."
Aspiring fashion designers in the San Francisco Bay area can attend a fashion day camp offered by the sewnow! studio, where activities include textile design, precision pattern cutting and an end-of-camp fashion show.
Tight budgets, family vacations and a desire to give children different, specialized experiences are driving a trend towards more varied offerings, says the ACA's Smith.
"Camps are responding to what they see as demand from families for more kinds of options and shorter sessions," she said.
Even more traditional cabins-and-campfires camps are broadening their offerings. Camp Lohikan in Pennsylvania offers a week-long Spy Camp for sleep-away campers, with a roster of activities including evasive driving lessons on all-terrain vehicles, surveillance techniques and code-breaking.
There seems to be a specialty camp for every niche, no matter how rough or refined. Outdoor Texas Camp offer kids as young as 9 years old hunting camps that typically last a week, with lessons on antler scoring, trailing wounded deer and duck and goose calling.
Alternatively the Charleston School of Protocol and Etiquette in South Carolina offers five-day "Civil Savvy" camps that include tea parties, thank you note etiquette and ballroom dancing for $1,295. The camp has two girls for every boy.
"We do dress, we do skin care, we do nail care - even for boys," says Cindy Grosso, the founder of the program. "Then every day we have a dining lesson."
The range of options has helped happy campers like Michael Watson, 12, from Dallas get a head start on his journey toward becoming a Renaissance Man. He has attended a traditional archery and swimming camp affiliated with a church in Texas, but prefers his days in the kitchen at Kids Culinary Camp.
"I love being outdoors and all," said Watson, who just finished sixth grade and enjoys making fettuccini by hand. "But this is what I want to do."
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Eric Walsh and Jim Loney)