ELIZABETHTOWN, Pa. (WHTM) — “Our first question isn’t really ‘Should we cancel this?’ or ‘Can we run this?’ It’s ‘How can we run this safely?'” says Nate Diegel, program coordinator at Greater Elizabethtown Area Recreation & Community Services. This year, GEARS will offer summer youth programs at several parks in and around Elizabethtown, providing outdoor activity and an “escape” for children and teens.

Registration is currently open for GEARS Summer Playground in Elizabethtown (ages 10-14), West Donegal Township (ages 6-9), Marietta (ages 6-14) and East Donegal Township (ages 6-14). The eight-week-long programs engage participants with games like kickball and soccer as well as arts and crafts activities.

Despite COVID-19, GEARS has been able to hold outdoor summer programs both last year and this year. In 2020, Diegel says, the organization had just a couple of weeks to organize the program after Pennsylvania moved into the “Yellow Phase.”

“We didn’t have any outbreaks or any cases in any of our summer programs,” says Diegel. Hoping to continue that trend this year, Summer Playground participants will be required to follow all current safety guidelines. They’ll wear masks, get temperature checks and fill out COVID-19 questionnaires.

Frequent sanitization is also a big part of the strategy to keep individuals safe, says Diegel. “Our Playground leaders are like part-time custodians now,” he jokes.

GEARS has hosted Summer Playground for more than 40 years. “It’s highly anticipated by youth. We get the same kids year after year until they age out,” says Diegel. “I talk to people that are 35 years old and they’re like, ‘Oh, I remember Playground! It was so fun.'”

In addition to getting children moving — and as parents may appreciate after this past year, getting them out of the house for a bit — the program also helps them develop social skills and learn how to problem-solve. And, Diegel says, “I think especially this year, with everything going on, it can really be that escape for them.”

Diegel says the program isn’t just about the children, though. It also helps the leaders, who are usually around 18-20 years old and often interested in teaching, develop skills they can use in their careers.

Camp Ladybug is another summer program run by GEARS. The program is for individuals ages 6 and older who have mental and/or physical challenges, and it offers activities including games and visits to local recreation sites. Registration for Camp Ladybug is also ongoing.

Summer Playground and Camp Ladybug run Monday-Friday starting June 14. Interested individuals can register for Summer Playground here and Camp Ladybug here. GEARS also offers several shorter camps covering various sports and educational topics. They are listed below the Summer Playground information linked above.