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The Ultimate Guide for Simplifying Summer Camp Decisions

The Ultimate Guide for Simplifying Summer Camp Decisions

Winter only has a few weeks left (giant internal cheer from me, as one of the two summer people in my home). And as much extra effort as winter takes, the end of winter brings its own challenges. It marks the start of what I’ll now refer to as The Working Mom Olympics. These games last from approximately the start of March until the end of May, which means our endurance actually exceeds that of typical athletes. But medaling in these games also requires years of practice, a certain amount of mental and physical exhaustion and a fairly substantial risk of injury.

The Working Mom Olympics represents a serious test of scheduling prowess and includes the following events:

  • Choosing and registering for summer camps/activities
  • Making spring break decisions (check out our list of 18 Things to do With Tweens in Columbus)
  • Planning summer vacations
  • Surviving the end of the school year

Get your game face on, because it’s training time, my fellow working mom warriors. Over the next six weeks, we’ll cover each of these events in the blog. We’ve been through these trenches, so we’ll bring training tips from our own experience and also draw from other working mom all-stars. We’ll replace the stress and frustration with a plan that works and a sense of excitement for the coming months - THAT’S the gold medal, right?!

Pregame Question: Why Bother with Camps?

Quick poll about your mentality on kids and summer camps. Which option most closely resembles your perspective: 

What Kind of Camp Mom Are You?
I’m a working mom and camps are a big part of my summer childcare plan.
I try to get my kids into a few camps a year.
We don’t really do camps. They get expensive and require transportation at odd times of day.

Whether you fit squarely into one of these categories or fall somewhere in between, I’m going to make a case that kids going to camp can be a very good thing. Going to camps as a kid had a major impact on my life - my academic success, how I relate to other people and even my perspective of the world around me.

Parent Trap

I love this movie. And they re-connect at camp. That's all:)

In elementary school, I went to day camps at a science museum and week-long church camp, 4-H camp and even Amish camp. Yes, that really happened. It involved my parents paying money for me to spend a week with other kids on an Amish farm herding goats, whittling wood and sweeping dirt floors. It wasn’t my favorite week.

In middle and high school I went to camps at different universities focused on different topics. One year, I chose a medical camp and saw a girl pass out when they took us into a room with a cadaver that smelled strongly of formaldehyde. Another year, I went to a camp all about the JFK assassination. Maybe this explains why I have absurdly diverse interests and the ability to get along with most people.

Governor's Institute Camp at Bowling Green State University

Found these gems from JFK camp at Bowling Green State University. On the left is me with friends I met at camp and corresponded with for years after. On the right, the courtroom where our prosecution and defense teams met on the final day of camp.

I’m also seeing the same results in my two older kids. And I’m here to tell you there’s a way for your kids to do camp that doesn’t break your bank or your last threads of sanity. If you don’t agree - don’t stop reading yet. At least let me make my case. And I’ll start by acknowledging the things that can make camps a challenge - and I get it, because I’m right there with you on these.

  • Camps cost money. Perhaps more money than you spend on childcare, especially if you have summers off or family or friends who watch your kids for cheap or free in the summer.
  • Camp schedules are for people with magically flexible work schedules and/or no other children. Every camp seems to run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and sometimes they’ll end at noon on Friday just for an extra kick in the pants. This doesn’t really jive with most work schedules, and it also makes it impossible to get two kids to different camps that start at the same time without carpool help.
  • Camps require registration months before you’re really thinking about summer. Researching summer camp was NOT my next thought this morning after shoveling snow, but this post appears in February for the very reason that camp registration is coming up soon.
  • Camp decisions require some level of research and coordination. Conversations with children about what they might want to do, text chains with friends about who wants to go and what weeks work, mental energy to guesstimate summer sport and vacation schedules.

BUT. The reward is worth the financial and time investment. Benefits of going to just about any camp include:

  • More confidence
  • New skills
  • Stronger independence
  • Better social skills
  • New friends
  • Connections to other young adult and adult mentors

Depending on the camp you choose, camp can also help kids deep-dive into skills they really want to cultivate, unplug from technology, connect with nature, get physical activity and even break molds they may have set at school and redefine themselves. The American Camp Association estimates that there are more than 14,000 camps in the U.S., and a little more than half of those offer overnight options. More than 14 million U.S. kids and adults attend camp each year.

Round Lake Christian Camp

Round Lake Christian Camp has been an annual choice for both of my boys. The know the camp, they take friends and they love it.

The Step-by-Step Guide to Choosing the Right Camps

As we look at planning camps, vacation and spring break over the coming weeks, we can take a few lessons from those Olympians who look out at a big goal and step it back into a process with a winning result. They have a plan, they designate periods of rest and recovery, they change up stagnant routines and they stay in their lane and avoid comparing themselves with others in unproductive ways.

Have a Plan

The summer camp process starts with research. Kick it off with a family conversation and take good notes. Ask kids:

  1. What do you really like to do? (i.e., art, play outside, play with friends, play soccer, play on the computer)
  2. Then asking probing questions to dig deeper into those initial answers. (What’s your favorite thing about playing outside – playing active games with friends or searching for animals? What kind of art do you really like – drawing or working with clay or painting?)
  3. Then ask what they might want to learn about or learn to do that they’ve never tried. (i.e., building a video game, archery, 3-D drawing, acting, horses)
  4. Next, ask if there are a couple friends they would really like to do something with this summer if you can make it work. It can be school friends or friends they don’t see as much, like family friends or friends from church or sports that don’t go to their school.

Camp Invention

Years ago, Kristie and I both sent our boys to Camp Invention at a local middle school. These sweet baby faces are pre-teens now!

Look at your notes, get an idea of the types of camps you’re looking for and designate a one-hour Internet search to researching camps. Keep a running list of the following information for each camp: name of the camp, location, available dates/times, cost, ages, different options such as 3-day versus full week or optional excursions or add-ons. Pay special attention to camps near home or work.

I polled some veteran camp families for a list of places to start this search:

  • Search on your community/school Facebook pages and groups. Type “camp” in the page/group’s search to see if a thread exists. If not, pose the question yourself. Other local moms are your #1 research for good camps in your area.

Camp Wyndot

Our school district hosts a camp "fair" each year where camps set up booths. We learned about Camp Wyandot, and he went for a three-night camp.

  • Google “camp” along with your city name and a topic of interest like “outdoors” or “sailing” and see what comes up and follow a few rabbit holes to camp websites.
  • Other local camp sources: your school district,  park systems, YMCAs, churches, 4-H groups, boy/girl scout groups, zoos, museums, colleges and universities, farms, local youth boosters, local metro parks, cultural centers, theaters, places that host youth classes like gymnastics, dance, rock climbing, parkour/ninja warrior, STEM camps/coding camps, horseback riding, sailing, YMCA, outdoors camps, local universities, local sports teams

Summer Camp Guide for Central Ohio

We pulled together a Summer Camp Guide with a huge list of clickable links for our favorite camps in the Central Ohio area.

 Camp research notes

Here's my Excel chart example. Sometimes I get lazy and just copy and paste from camp websites into a Word doc, but the Excel is more organized and a better resource year-to-year so you aren't starting from scratch each time.

After this research – but BEFORE you present any options to your kids – have a conversation with your spouse or anyone else who needs to weigh in on budget and scheduling. Cut any camps that completely conflict with non-negotiable vacations or existing summer plans. Cut any camps that are just not financially viable. Decide about how much you’re willing to spend and how much of the summer you want kids to be in camp. We let our kids go to church camp every year if they’re interested. It’s affordable, fun and connects them to other kids that share similar values. Depending on their age, they stay between one and five nights. Beyond that, we usually allow each kid to choose one other week-long day camp and one sports camp that meets just a couple hours each day for a week or so. So that’s three weeks in the summer impacted by some sort of camp.

Round Lake Christian Camp

This is my son with a friend he's had since birth who lives across town. They went to a week-long overnight camp together this summer.

With general budget and time boundaries established, it’s time for conversation number two with your kids. Present some options. Immediately cut any camps they don’t like. Talk about any camps that require trade-offs. Maybe one camp is very expensive, and only becomes an option if it’s the only camp for this year. Maybe one camp only happens during baseball season. Last year, my son wanted to go to camp with a couple friends. The week that worked for the other boys meant he would sacrifice a potential spot on the All-Star baseball team. He chose camp and we let the coach know early on that he wasn’t available for the All-Star team once that selection process started. He was a little bummed, but didn’t regret his choice. Get enough feedback from your kids to prioritize camps by level of interest, and let them know final decisions still depend on availability and scheduling.

Designate periods of rest and recovery

Before making final decisions on camps, step back and view the summer as a bigger picture. Too many activities can exhaust kids during what should be a season of recharging. I just made my case that camps are good for kids, but a summer of back-to-back camps can become too much. For working moms, paying a camp might seem easier and better than paying a sitter, but it’s still constant activity and time away from home. Look at how to schedule camps so there are down times when kids can just be home, whether it’s with a parent or with a sitter.

Also consider how different kid schedules work together. Two kids at different camps the same week requires two parents or carpool help if the camps have conflicting drop off times and locations.

I couldn't pull the video through, but this Huffington Post article includes one of my favorite video clips from Modern Family about Phil and Claire figuring out how to manipulate the summer camp schedule to get a few kid-free days. Spoiler alert: Phil is wearing some sweet cut-off jean shorts!

Change up stagnant routines

A little bit of a stretch makes you grow, not break. If your kids have done only day camps, consider an overnight camp or a week-long camp. Consider encouraging kids to invite a new friend for a week of camp or try a camp even if they don’t know anyone else who wants to go. Doing the same camps each summer can be a fun tradition, but keep an eye on when kids might be ready for a change.

Stay in your lane

The goal of camps is a good summer for your family, not a “better” summer than anyone else. Avoid the comparison game – whether it’s number of camps, costs of camps or accelerating in a sport or talent.

 

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