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Picking the Perfect Summer Camp

Let’s face it, picking a perfect summer camp is a daunting task for even a seasoned parent. If you add in multiple children with different interests, the task becomes even more challenging. Each parent that we speak with this time of year, especially working moms, will tell you that even with the abundance of camps to choose from, finding a camp that fits every one’s needs is not always an easy thing to accomplish. Camp time is looked upon with dread by many. But why? It should be a fun experience for both the child and for the mom who is sending her beloved  off to explore and learn in a different environment than a school room.

At a recent LiveMom meeting, we talked a bit about the problems that we’ve each experienced with finding a suitable summer camp for our kids. Not surprisingly, we each had different perspectives, needs and experiences. We thought we’d share with you what our concerns were and open up the conversation to those of you who are either experiencing this summer camp conundrum or who have experienced it in the past.

So, how does one go about picking the perfect summer camp?

The first issue would be matching up the right camp for your child’s personality.

But wait, then there’s the location. What if the perfect camp is thirty miles away?

And then there’s the cost. How can you squeeze out a couple hundred dollars a WEEK to give your child an awesome experience?

You see where where we are going with this? It’s not easy.

Let’s talk cost first. For some families, summer camp is a necessity. When I was a full-time working mama a few years back with an elementary-aged child, I had no other choice. I had to work. My son had to have a place to go while I worked. I was also a single mom at the time so cost was a very big issue for me when choosing an all-day camp for my son. I dreaded those summer months, but I knew they were inevitable and managed to scrimp and save to pay out the $600+ per month for those three months. For others, camp is a luxury. I am now a SAHM/ WAHM who doesn’t need to send my middle child to camp this summer, but I choose to do so for a few weeks so she and I have some space from each other, breathing room,  that will allow both of us to stay sane.While you can find some camps costing as little as $100 per week, most will run upwards of $150-$300. I think our best advice is to plan for this expense throughout the year. Save your pennies. Or your quarters if you are aiming to send your little one to one of the more expensive camps.

Next would have to be location. Is it really feasible to drive your kid clear across town to attend a particular camp? For some, absolutely. But realistically, it’s going to be a much better experience for everyone involved if mom or dad doesn’t show up tearing his or her hair out because they’ve been stuck in Austin traffic for two hours in an attempt to collect the little one from a trapeze camp in Buda. (For the record, I don’t know if there is really a trapeze camp in Buda.) So try to find something that is close to home or to work. That will make life much easier on everyone. Really.

Now we have to move on to the options that fit your budget and selected location. This is where it gets a bit tricky. Can it be done? Of course! From Georgetown to Buda (again with the trapeze camp), there is a plethora of camp choices for Austin-area families. Austin’s own Spike Gillespie, writer and wedding officiant, raised her now 21 year-old son in Austin and says, “He did all sorts of camps back in the day and I think there must be more now. He did Hancock Center, Magic Camp, Soccer Camp. In Austin, where there are so many creative people, there are tons of camps. I, personally, wish I could sign up for knitting and weaving camp at Hill Country Weavers.”

She has a point there. Austin is a pretty creative city. You’d probably have a hard time not finding something that is interesting. Like Gillespie, who runs writing and fashion camps for kids, there is a camp category for just about everything. Where else can you send your kids to camp with a well-known author than in Austin? Nat Miller, Education Director for ZACH Theatre “has participated in the camp fair for the past four years and there is every kind of camp you can imagine.” So whether your kid is a budding actor or a horse riding enthusiast, you should be able to find something in close proximity that will suit your child’s needs. Gillespie’s camps are not exactly something that you would find in a cookie-cutter setting.

“For my Writing Camps, I like to say we are the Anti-TAKS camp (or whatever they’re calling standardized tests these days). So many kids are forced to learn by rote in the classroom, and must focus on writing in a way that will yield high test scores. At my camp, while we always encourage good grammar, spelling and punctuation, the absolute main focus is on CREATIVITY. I want them to feel totally safe and free to explore their imaginations without being told that they’re doing it “wrong.” Fun– that’s what I want them to get. And a lifelong passion for language, for playing with language. In my Fashion Camps, it’s the same idea, applied to fabric. I want kids to see that you don’t need a bunch of money to create fashion. We upcycle, turn pillowcases into evening gowns and old hardware into jewelry. I want them to see that they are capable, now, of learning how to make cool stuff, that you don’t have to be a certain age or from a certain background. You can start playing around now.”
Cool, huh?

Now let’s talk safety. Say you find the perfect camp. It fits your budget, is in easy driving distance, and it appeals to your little one. But you have this nagging feeling that something could go wrong. Back when my son was in camp all summer long, there were a few days that I stayed home from work with him. Why? Well, the camp he was in, run by the local suburban town that I live in, did not have an indoor space for the kids. They spent the bulk of the day in area parks with field trips mixed in. On rainy days, especially stormy days, I would take off to be with him in the safety of a house out of an insane fear that he would be struck by lightning or sucked up in a Texas twister. Irrational fear? Maybe. But safety first, right?

Wondering if your kids can have their cell phones on them during camp? That might also be another question to ask. Modern times makes it much easier for our kids to get in touch with us should something go wrong but some programs might restrict cell phone usage.

What are the ratios? Is the facility inspected for safety issues? Are the employees working with the children screened before being hired? These are all relevant  questions to ask when you are searching for the perfect camp. You’ll also want to check to see if the camp is licensed. You can read more about what that means here. For a list of licensed camps, click here.

Nicole, one of our contributing writers, is like many moms as she seeks out recommendations and referrals from friends. Ask, ask and ask around. Nothing is better than word of mouth and listening to another mama’s experience.

Lastly, expectations. Keep them in check. If you sign your kid up for the theatre camp at ZACH, their hopes for your child are probably in line with your own hopes. Nat says, “The Performing Arts School believes in life skills through theatre skills placing emphasis on creating well-rounded people capable of artistic and self-expression through body, voice and mind. All programs end in a final sharing for family and friends featuring skills, exercises and scenes students have worked on during the week.” But if, instead, your little guy or gal melts down in tears as you drop them off, know that it is ok.  Ideally, we would like for our perfectly well-rounded kids to have the best camp experience. Forging new friendships, gaining more confidence, learning new skills and overall having a great time would be my goal for my kids’ summer camp experience, but I have to realize it just may not happen all at once. Maybe picking one of those goals per year is the way to go. What a bonus it would be if all were gained!

Oh and did we mention that you need to have your entire camp schedule figured out, um, now?! Uh, yeah. No pressure there, mamas. But really, get on it. Camps in town are filling up fast and some already may be full. Wouldn’t that stink to find the perfect camp only to find out that it is full?

Written by Catherine Prystup