Ask intrepid campers lucky enough to attend sleep-away recreation camps—the good ol' summer cabins in the woods variety—what makes their experiences special, and invariably they rattle off activities they don't get to do anywhere else. That first bull's-eye in archery (or maybe the first time they finally hit the target). The realization that even if they flounder at dodgeball, they rule at disc golf. That exhilarating orienteering romp through the woods with compass and map.
But now, park and rec facilities across the country are bringing those camp experiences home to stay as part of their mission to broaden recreational offerings and make sure that there's something for everyone to get active and get outdoors.
While these activities remain firmly outside the mainstream compared to, say, recreational soccer leagues, all three have enjoyed tremendous growth, due, in part, to big boosts from pop culture, increased exposure, and the determination of Generations X and Y to experience a little of everything.
Archery, in particular, has shot up in stature and popularity. Call it the Legolas Effect. Ever since the pop-culture reign of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, followed by a spurt of medieval/fantasy/ancient-history flicks featuring a lot of bow-and-arrow action, rec consumers and planners are targeting this very old and esteemed Olympic sport.
The numbers bear this out, notes Doug Engh, director of the National Alliance for the Development of Archery (NADA), the group responsible for teaching and certifying archery instructors. When NADA formed in May 2000, it trained 1,500 instructors a year. Now, it trains close to 7,000 a year.
Along with pop culture, Engh attributes the rise in archery participation to his group's heavy marketing to recreation agencies and better communication with archery coaches, encouraging them to create their own classes.
"More instructors mean more participants," he observes, though the camp connection remains huge for archery. "Camps are our base."
NADA's surveys show that about 4,000 summer camps nationwide run some type of archery program, exposing about 3 million kids to the sport over the last few years.
Archery can fill in gaps in recreation programming in several ways, Engh says. On a practical facilities note, it can squeeze extra use from a multipurpose facility. Outdoors, archery requires about two acres for the targets; indoors, targets can be set up in a basketball court space.
"We're big into portability," he says, noting that while dedicated archery ranges are nice, they're not necessary for a program.
In a hyper-competitive world, archery provides kids who aren't necessarily athletically inclined with a chance to succeed.
"It's not competitive like a team sport," Engh says. "It's an individual sport. It's a good fit for those who don't take to a team environment."
Ironically, he notes that children who excel at team sports sometimes don't follow the archery instruction well, since they've grown accustomed to mastering skills through sheer athleticism. What's more, archery can provide instant success to those who have struggled in other sports.
"If a kid shoots the bow and misses, the game can be adjusted—you move the target closer and you give them an idea of what it feels like to be successful," he says. "In other sports, like basketball, you have to learn to be successful. You keep missing until you finally sink the shot. You start with failure. We can start with success and improve from there."