As the child of a Columbia professor, many of my childhood memories were set in the small, idyllic neighborhood of Morningside Heights, either directly on campus or nearby. It’s small wonder, then, that in lieu of traditional sleep-away camp my brother and I spent several summers at a Columbia-sponsored day camp in upper Manhattan.
Columbia hosts several summer day camps for kids, including a general “Little Lions” camp for ages 6-12 (formerly “Cubs Camp”), as well as several dedicated camps focusing on specific sports. I spent a few summers at Little Lions and several more at the Soccer Academy. Despite being aﬃliated with Columbia, campers need not have any connection to the university; as the program website states, “All camps are open to any and all entrants, and are limited only by the specified number, gender, age, or grade levels of each camp.”
My memories of both camps I attended recall a positive and encouraging atmosphere. I remember vividly a series of relay races the Little Lions counselors set up for us at the Dodge gym. For the final race, we split into boys vs. girls teams. Propelled by the desire to prove that we didn’t have cooties, ten-year-old me was determined to bring the girls’ team to victory. I had never raced anyone in my life. Words could scarcely express the joy I felt when coming around the bend of the one-tenth-mile track, I found to my surprise that I was yards ahead of my opponent, a boy we had for some reason nicknamed Applesauce. The enthusiasm I built that day encouraged me to keep running, a hobby I enjoy to this day. (I don’t know if Applesauce can say the same.)
Little Lions was enjoyably quirky in that it was a children’s summer camp hosted almost entirely in an indoor university gym. If the weather was nice, I think we ate outdoors; if it was bad, we were herded into the gym’s squash courts to eat our sack lunches and watch a movie. There were only a few movies, so we watched “The Sandlot” a lot. Little Lions is also not only sports-centric; it also includes arts & crafts and backyard games.
Dodgeball in the “Blue Gym”
Because the Dodge Fitness Center on campus features a broad range of facilities, we were exposed to a wide variety of sports and games. The exact oﬀerings have likely varied over the years, though I assume dodgeball in the “Blue Gym” is still a universal favorite.
Unlike Little Lions, the Soccer Academy is hosted at Baker Field, a sports complex which is located at 218th St. in Inwood and owned by Columbia. Transportation was provided; we piled into a bus near the regular Columbia campus each morning and were brought back at the end of the day. Like the other sport-specific camps, it was more serious than Little Lions: as Columbia outlines it, “Our commitment to excellence provides campers with the opportunity to further develop their skills in multiple sports by receiving instruction from...professional athletes, collegiate student-athletes, physical education teachers, and other educators.” However, in my experience it too was a supportive environment. We bonded quickly over passing and dribbling drills and hoarded quarters to trade in for Snickers bars in the cafeteria.
The soccer skills I built at the Soccer Academy as a child have remained surprisingly relevant to my life. While my school soccer career did not last past eighth grade — chalk it up to a poorly-timed growth spurt and resulting lack of coordination — the summers at Columbia taught me enough that I was able to enjoy casual play in the West Side Soccer League for the rest of my adolescence. As a young adult, co-ed rec soccer at Brooklyn Bridge Park is one of my favorite pastimes, something I would have been unlikely to try were it not for those Baker Field summers.
I can wholeheartedly recommend the Columbia camps to families looking for a fun and positive sports experience for the summer while remaining in Manhattan. The Little Lions website suggests that programming for summer 2022 is still up in the air due to COVID, but those interested should check back at https://perec.columbia.edu/littlelionscamp.
Information for the sports-specific camps may be found at https://perec.columbia.edu/sports-camps.