Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump weren’t the only presidential candidates last summer pondering issues and delivering speeches. Potomac’s Daniel Yaya threw his hat in the ring, too. He’s nine.
Daniel, along with 19 other students in third, fourth, and fifth grades, attended the Smithsonian Associates’ President for a Week day camp to learn about democracy and the American presidency.
From day one of this annual camp, students create their own presidential campaigns, says Brigitte Blachere, program manager of Smithsonian Associates. Each gets to build his or her platform, create campaign materials and banners, and write and make a speech promoting the platform to friends and family at the end of the week.
“They will come up with ideas, from clean drinking water to climate change to puppy farms,” says Blachere. “It runs the gamut, and they get to put it forth so people can vote on them.”
In addition to visits to the National Museum of American History, the National Portrait Gallery, Mount Vernon, and other places, plus hands-on activities in class, students participate in discussions led by instructors—many of whom are teachers in the area—about the success and failures of past Presidents and the Electoral College.
Daniel’s mother, Marjan Adib, assistant director of internal communications at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, heard of the camp in January of last year. Daniel has attended Smithsonian camps the past four years. As in summers past, he came home every day to tell her about his experiences, which included visiting a Trump and Clinton exhibit at the Newseum and viewing paintings of past Presidents at the Portrait Gallery.
“It was a great learning experience,” says Adib. “Having some background information was helpful as we got closer to the election in November.”
President for a Week costs $395 for Smithsonian Associates members (membership is $45), $460 for nonmembers. The next session is July 17 through 21; smithsonianassociates.org/camp.
Another local program catering to students who have an interest in politics, Camp Congress for Girls started in 2011, when Kimberly Mitchem-Rasmussen, founder of the Girls in Politics Initiative, was seeing more camps on topics of interest to boys—such as engineering and sports—than to girls. Camp Congress, held at the Washington Court Hotel on Capitol Hill, teaches girls about leadership and the opportunities open to women in the political arena.
“I had a candidate’s campaign strategy on my desk,” says Mitchem-Rasmussen, who runs the Political Institute for Women. “I looked at it and just had an idea of taking everything we teach a candidate and putting it into a summer program.”
Aimed at girls ages 10 through 15, the weeklong day camp begins with lessons on the structure of the American political system. Each is taught by elected officials and political consultants, among other experts, and the girls meet former and current legislators such as US congresswomen Carolyn Maloney and Frederica Wilson.
“We want them surrounded by women who have actually worked in politics so it’s immersive,” says Mitchem-Rasmussen. “We don’t water anything down—anything that we would teach a woman we will teach a girl. We want to make sure that if a girl decides she wants to run for office when she comes of age, she has been exposed to every aspect of campaigning.”
After learning about processes in the Senate, House, and White House, each girl—there are typically 25 campers—is able to choose whether she’ll run for a seat in Congress or for the Oval Office.
Creating her own campaign platform, slogan, and finance plan, each registers to vote. Once elected to Congress or—for one lucky girl—the presidency, the campers learn how to introduce and amend bills, lobby, and work together to vote on legislation pertaining to a topic of their choice. Camp ends with a signing of the bill by the “President.”
Camp Congress costs $667.24. The next sessions are June 19 through 23, June 26 through 30, and July 31 through August 4; girlsinpolitics.org.
Washington is a natural stage for camps devoted to politics—kids have the chance to visit places that craft and implement the nation’s laws. For the girls who attend Running Start’s Young Women’s Political Leadership Program at Georgetown University—a sleep-away camp for 60 high-school girls—this is a big part of the agenda.
“We take them to the White House every year,” says Susannah Wellford, founder and president of Running Start. “We take them to Capitol Hill, and they meet with their members.”
The girls lobby their elected officials about an issue they care about. These causes can range from the environment and education to bullying and migrant issues, as one refugee from Burma presented last year, says Wellford.
Similar to Camp Congress and the Smithsonian camp, the Young Women’s Political Leadership Program also runs a mock campaign, but with a twist: The girls don’t run for an elected position; instead, they choose their roles out of a hat.
Working in teams of six, each girl is given a position such as candidate, campaign manager, speechwriter, or social-media director and must work to make sure the campaign is successful. Activities might include creating an ad using only a cell phone or writing a speech or promoting the candidate on social media. Each day, the team that has done the best wins points.
Says Wellford: “The camp works to demonstrate to campers what it takes to lead and why you would want to do politics.”
The Young Women’s Political Leadership Program costs $2,000, including housing and meals; financial assistance is available. The next session is June 19 through 24. Girls must apply via forms on the website, runningstartonline.org/programs/ywpl.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Washingtonian.