Summer Fun for Parents: Welcome to “Camp Chaos”

Summertime is just around the corner….so close I know my son can taste it. He is visibly at-ease, excited, more joyful. He likes school….but he LOVES summer break: unstructured fun, no homework, a lack of routine. But what about working parents whose employers are totally unreasonable and won’t give them 10 or 11 weeks off in the summer? Or parents like me who simply quake at the thought of all those weeks of unstructured time and the inevitable results…”Mommm, I want to set up a lemonade/ smoothie/ popsicle/ ice-cream/ brownie stand on the corner. Will you go shopping/make everything/do set up and clean up?”; “Mommm, [insert friend here] is away on vacation, will you play soccer/climb a tree/have a water fight with me?”; “Mommm, I’m bored!” Don’t get me wrong, I love spending time with my son. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have made the scary decision to take some time off from work this year. But the length of summer break in the US seems to me the epitome of the phrase “too much of a good thing.”

Dealing with the Long Break

There are many ways that parents can address the summer break. The one that has worked for our family is summer day or overnight camps. While these can seem expensive, they may be more economical and offer more variety than summer-long childcare. And there are ways to economize, such as using dependent care spending accounts (essentially paying with pre-tax dollars), choosing part-time camps, or going with providers, like the YMCA, who offer income-based fees or discounts. The key is to look for camps with sufficient experienced staff that offer a variety of activities and events/trips that meet your children’s interests. But that is easier said than done. There are lots of providers offering lots of different camps at different times and in a variety of locations and formats. It takes significant advance research and parent networking to come up with a plan. Has anyone noticed how much effort, stress and confusion this process can create for parents? Or am I alone here?

Welcome to Camp Chaos

I got the first taste of the summer camp gauntlet after he left daycare, when registration for our company-sponsored camp opened in February – and his school hadn’t yet finalized any plans for their camp program. How was I supposed to coordinate different camps when the programs operated on different registration schedules? And I couldn’t wait to register for the company camp since spaces were so limited. Then there was the challenge of coordinating summer camps with summer vacations – especially trips involving relatives who didn’t have to work out their summer plans while the ground was still frozen.

Once other camp programs began opening their registrations, I encountered my next hurdle: too much choice! So many providers….so many camp themes! Camp Invention or Rock Climbing? Hogwarts Express or Robots? Chess or Hip Hop Dancing? And don’t ask 7-8 year olds. They want to do them all…completely ignoring that some are held the same week. How do I get my arms around this chaos?

Bring out the Spreadsheet!

Yes, I admit it. I created a spreadsheet. Well, two actually. The first one outlines the different camp options/providers by week, putting the camps into priority order (based on extensive mother-son discussions) in case of full registrations or other issues. This approach (below) worked fairly well in the past but got more complicated this year when half-day camps became an option due to my being off work. I hate to say it, but I used the planner to spread half-day camps out across the summer and avoid too much “home-alone” time!

After the camps were booked (marked by blue on the planning spreadsheet!), I created sheet number two to ensure we showed up at the right location each week – and to deal with all the variations in start/end times and requirements for food, clothing and miscellaneous materials. I also included handy info like the phone number and deadlines for registration changes and final payments. A printout of this sheet lives on a cupboard in the kitchen and is a savior each Sunday evening (or often Monday morning!).

I’m sure there’s got to be a better way to coordinate this process, but I was reassured that I’m actually not alone when the local YMCA manager told me he sees parents with all sorts of camp-coordination approaches: from lists and notes to flow-charts. BTW – for those of you who are new to this, here’s my list of “things to consider” that should help this process go a little easier.

  • Since you usually can’t meet the staff when camp registration opens, check their brochure or website for information on the training staff receive and the ratio of counselors to children. Some camps, like the YMCA, hold parent informational sessions just before the start of summer – this is a great way to get the feel for what you’ve signed up for, or see if you can attend as a preview for the following year.
  • Check that CPR and first-aid certified staff will be onsite at all times.
  • For outdoor camps, be sure you are satisfied with the rainy-day arrangements – both the facilities and activity plans.
  • With all-day camps, even specialized theme camps like chess or music, check that there are a variety of activities planned – including time for the kids to move. At younger ages, kids can’t focus on only on one activity all day. This I know from experience!
  • Start your search with places or groups you already know: your community or child’s school may have camp programs, as often do local museums, zoos and cultural centers. If your child does extracurricular sports or enrichment programs, these groups may also hold camps. This can work well since you are familiar with the organizers and know that your child likes the activity

In the end, we all just want to give our children a safe and enriching summer experience with memories to last a life-time.

What about your experience? What has worked for you in navigating the summer break and camps?

About the Author

Audra is an experienced pharmaceutical marketing professional, aspiring writer, and mother of Elliott, a high-spirited twenty-year old. Frequently tired but never bored, she has a strong interest in public health fostered by numerous years implementing global oncology education programs as well as by her twenty-year crazy (wild? amazing?) adventure in parenting. She recently earned a Masters in Public Health to augment her expertise in health policy and health promotion. Audra is a founding member of the PedSafe Team


6 Responses to “Summer Fun for Parents: Welcome to “Camp Chaos””

  1. mikerosss says:

    Superb blog post, I have book marked this internet site so ideally I’ll see much more on this subject in the foreseeable future!

  2. I think I’m the only parent dreading summer. I love my “me” time. I need my “me” time so i can go to my doctors appointments every day. Thanks for these tips, maybe they’ll help me out when I’m not super stressed maintaining two hyperactive kids while I get shots every day.

  3. Maya Adduci says:

    I’ve recently started a blog, the information you provide on this site has helped me tremendously. Thank you for all of your time & work.

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