The secret’s out: Spy Camp allows kids a unique taste of covert affairs

Spy Camp began six years ago as a weeklong day camp that allowed kids to dive into the intelligence field and learn about the disciplines involved in spy craft. 

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“When it’s real, it’s even that much more exciting,” Spy Museum Youth Education Director Jacqueline Eyl said, comparing the mission of the camp to that of the Washington museum. “Kids that come in for camp think it’s awesome that they’re doing the ‘real work’ of spies.”

This being camp for spies, Eyl refused to divulge all its secrets. However, she did admit that the campers get to visit FBI headquarters during the week. 

“We are one of the few groups that are allowed in because of our strong relationship with FBI headquarters,” she said. Campers also conduct surveillance on “enemy agents” throughout the Smithsonian museums, attend workshops on ninja skills taught by a martial artist, and visit the scientists at FBI Quantico labs to learn analysis on fingerprints, handwriting and code.

This year, Spy Camp is expanding to two summer sessions. Each lasts five days from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. According to Eyl, families visiting D.C. from as far away as the West Coast have signed up their kids for the camp. 

Friends or siblings who attend together are placed into a larger team, and teamwork is an essential component of the experience. “Everything we do is team-based, just like any really good operation,” Eyl said. “You’re depending on the skills and talents of a variety of people to get you through, solving various problems that you’re faced with. Every left-brain and right-brain kid has a place in the team.”

Spy Camp is exclusive to children ages 10 to 13 and costs $415 per participant, with a discount for regular members of the museum. The first session takes place Aug. 1 to 5 and the second is Aug. 8 to 12. Spots, which fill up fast, can be reserved by calling 202-654-0932.

The camp accepts 40 “recruits” who are split up into five teams of eight. Sarah Willmarth, a grad student who led one of the teams last year, said the best thing about Spy Camp is that the kids — and teachers — can let their imagination run wild. 

“They’re creating programs that are really capturing kids’ attention, and they’re making them want to learn more about the science behind spying, the code-breaking or the history,” she said. “There’s a little bit of acting involved, as well. Every day you and your kids go run a mission outside of the museum. To do that, you come up with a cover identity. Every day, Spy Camp becomes a different camp: Clown Academy or Cooking Camp.” 

Eyl said the experience is unique for each participant.

“We leave it open for the campers to interpret the data they’re getting and take the storyline in a different direction,” she said. “There’s room for failure and learning from failure within each daily activity, each mission, but overall we’re moving them along a path.”

But the camp staff ensures that the mystery is solved one way or another, Eyl said.

“Otherwise there’s a really big cake with a ‘mission accomplished’ message on it that we’re going to have to eat by ourselves.”