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Slaying the dragon of signing up for summer day camp

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 7, 2009 - When poring over an inch-thick stack of scrawled notes on scrap paper, homemade flyers, local ads, and even the occasional glossy but bafflingly confused brochure, a parent's mind turns to mush, numb to the task ahead.

"I need a summer camp that teaches me how to get my kids in summer camp."

Alas, there is no such thing.

As my wife Lauren diligently compares opportunities, dates, schedules, and, most of all, fees, I like to point out that I spent my summers unencumbered by organized supervised activities. I played with Gary Mays on the construction site behind his house that was generously sprinkled with rusty nails - you know, when we weren't at the "creek" that seemed to bear more in common with the local sewer line than mere geographical proximity.

"And look how I turned out," I declare.

Suddenly, her motivation went into overdrive.

There is no shortage of choices. Soccer camp is easy to understand. (Although when I asked my oldest son, Owen, what was his favorite part of that camp after his first day, he said, "when we played Wii bowling!") Then there's Abra-Kid-Abra magic camp, which promises to teach the kids to levitate. Not sure that's a skill I want my 6-year-old to know. Want your kid to feel like a total nerd but Math Camp is booked? Why, send her to something called Safety Camp! I imagine those institutionalized in this one spending the summer being told not to stick a fork in a toaster.

For working parents, half-day programs are a big challenge. Who wouldn't love their kid spending time at Laumeier Sculpture Park? But it only runs from 9 to noon. So for many, either a grandparent or a kind soul would need to help with the logistics of that one.

In general, here are the challenges:

* Websites have little information. This means you have to keep your eyes out for flyers, mailers and brochures. And even then, the info on those materials is too often incomplete so follow-up phone calls are necessary to find out about the most basic information, like hours and price.

* Work and vacation schedule. For most working parents, even those camps with 9 to 3 hours are challenging. And don't forget to factor in your vacation plans.

* Your own preconceived notions about "summer fun." You have to start wrestling with the moral ambiguity of what is "best" for little Ariel and Eric. Yes, she would love the Broadway Bound camp, but shouldn't she be outside swimming? He loves baseball, sure ... but for 35 hours a week?

Once that's worked out, here's what to do:

* Start early. The early bird gets the better camps, and many well-prepared parents start at least thinking about it all in February and March.

* Get a big calendar. Start marking off holidays, vacations and the start and end of school. You need to know exactly what you're dealing with.

* Collect a lot of data. Start collecting all those brochures. Even if something looks unappealing at first (Camp Decoupage), hang on to it. When you need the first three days of August filled in, and you realize that camp costs only $10 a day, having little Gavin spend a few days gluing colored paper to boxes might suddenly look like a life-affirming activity for him.

* Talk to other parents. Not just about what camps their kids enjoyed, but what to expect. "The only advice I have is, if the camp suggests you wear a swimsuit under your clothes because it's going to be a 'water fun' day, make sure your daughter wears a two-piece," says local mom Briana Hepfinger. "A friend of my daughter's couldn't get out of her one-piece in time to go potty, and she wet herself and had to sit out of all the fun until her mom could get there with replacement clothes. She was 3, and I think it kind of traumatized her."

And finally, don't take for granted that your kid is going to understand what camp is going to mean. Nancy Stevens, mom: "We signed Sam up for Camp Dragonfly when he was 3. We tried to prepare him for weeks before camp started by telling him everything we knew about it. Finally he confessed that he was a little scared, and trying our best to comfort him we asked what he was afraid of. He replied, 'How big are the dragons?'"

So among everything else you have to remember, don't forget to ask how big the dragons are. If they are in fact the child-eating kind, you probably want to avoid that one.

Unless, you know, it's a great deal.

Kevin M. Mitchell is a freelance writer in St. Louis.