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Kids, Camps and Carpools, Oh My!

Decisions, Decisions: Children can try out all kinds of new activities in the summer, from dance to soccer.

Picking a summer camp for my children is like planning an elaborate vacation that I don’t get to go on: I put in hours reviewing locations, activities, prices, times and applications.

I do, however, lean toward the ones that provide food—so at least I get a vacation from packing lunch.
My first criterion for selecting a camp is practicality: What will work best for my children and what will work best for my husband and me.

When my children were very small, they continued in summer school at their day-care center, Rothschild Early Childhood Center in Syracuse, near DeWitt. They hardly noticed a change except the pool was open and special activities were offered each week. It was also a nice financial break for us because we only had to pay for the summer weeks we used and the kids had no transition to make.

By last summer my son and daughter were older (a whopping 7 and 6, respectively) and more adventurous in picking camps. Neither my husband nor I were camp-goers as kids, so it’s all pretty new to us. However, here’s how we plan now, based on our experience: Before summer starts, we decide how many weeks we want to enroll the children in. For us, four weeks of camp is a good amount, both boredomwise for the kids at home, pricewise for us, and timewise for everyone involved. The autumn before, we decide how much money to set aside for summer camp using our dependent care savings account through our jobs. When summertime comes, we pay the camp and then get reimbursed from our account.

But I wish I had talked to Trish Moloney Schwartz of Syracuse last year about scheduling summer camps. She believes in “building in some breaks” in the summer camp regimen. Having to get up early, rushing to be on time, “It’s just so taxing. It can become like school,” Schwartz says. She prefers half-day camps, such as the Everson Museum of Art’s art camp, which allows children more free time for the rest of the day.

This summer we’re opting to schedule a week’s break for home activities and more lounging between each week of summer camp. But we’re lucky we can adjust our work schedules to accommodate kids at home in the summer. Some parents choose one camp and have kids stick with it all summer long. The consistency can help create a satisfying routine. “A sense of rhythm within the summer is good,” Schwartz notes.

Many camps offer different activities or themes each week throughout the summer. Children who attend for the summer can try out different sports, arts or even cooking programs. Other children may try one week at several different camps. The activities offered make up another major criterion for selecting a camp, of course.

Last year, we were planning late, just as school let out. I picked up the Jewish Community Center’s big brochure, and the kids and I thumbed through it. My daughter was considering gymnastics, but it was already filled up. My son and daughter both wanted to do circus camp, which was later in the summer, and worked with our schedules. Then my daughter chose the all-sports week, a selection I never would have expected from her. Plus she was going to go all alone, with no brother and no friend. I was proud of her braveness.

My son wanted to do all soccer, which wasn’t offered that same week at the JCC in DeWitt. He had gone to a “soccer party” at SportCenter481 in East Syracuse, so I looked into camps there. There was one the same week as my daughter’s all-sports, and we were set—except it meant my husband and I each drove a child to a different location each morning and arranged separate pickups each late afternoon.

Ironically, when the kids got to their respective camps, their sibling’s best friend was there! So we arranged playdates by taking home each child’s best friend from the other child’s camp; confusing but a fun bonus. It was also a reminder that planning to attend camp with a friend makes it even more special for some children. I’m going to try to coordinate some camp weeks this summer with my children’s friends’ parents—ahead of time.

Brochures, Web sites and the Family Times Summer Camp Fair at Carousel Center on March 29 (see page 7 for details) are convenient ways of giving children some ideas of what different camps may be like with a selection of activities and locales.

Parents also can review who is in charge and how the camps are organized. A big part of Angela McBride’s decision is based on who is running the camp. The Syracuse mother was familiar with the organizers of a soccer camp she sent her three boys to one recent summer. She also checks out a camp’s policy on emergencies—ahead of time.

Maria Erdman of Syracuse has a simple philosophy when it comes to picking camps for her two children: “No carpool, no camp. Well, except for the one at Thornden Park, which I chose because it was in walking distance, cheap and raved about by friends,” notes the stay-at-home mom and graduate student.

The “carpool camps” included one at Baltimore Woods, which she didn’t want to drive to twice a day from Syracuse. A colleague of mine describes “swamp day” at that camp when she has to line the backseat of her car with towels to pick up her grandson who leaves covered in mud—and very happy.

One camp that offers bus transportation is Camp Talooli. It’s in Pennellville, between Phoenix and Mexico, and it looks like the typical camp from the movies. Kids can canoe, swim in a lake, learn archery, and more. I thought the bus ride might be too much for my kids last summer, but an acquaintance’s son, then 5, went by himself for a week and had a grand time. When I show the photos of the camp to my children, they get very excited. I think we’ll give it a go. If they’re ready for a sleepaway camp some year, this camp offers that, too.

Last summer I also signed the kids up for an outdoorsy and educational camp at the Rice Creek Field Station at SUNY Oswego. The campers take hikes, explore the woods, dissect owl pellets (aka throwup) and learn about flowers and plants.

My children liked the owl pellets and they liked showing me the woods on the last day. But they didn’t like the 45-minute drive each morning and the heat that week. (In retrospect, a week off between camps might have increased their wake-up enthusiasm.)

The camp my children beg to go to for more days each year is the one that has surprised me the most: It’s a type of vacation Bible school at our church. It began three years ago with the name “Peace Camp.” That’s still what my kids call it and they bounce out of bed to go—unlike going to Sunday school. The directors come up with fun activities like treasure hunts and sing-alongs. It’s only three hours a day and it’s the cheapest by far. Many religious organizations offer similar programs, which are often open to all children, not just those of members.

Last summer I learned of another kind of camp, a reading camp or class offered by the Baldwinsville School District for children who just finished first grade. That will be my daughter this year and I hope she can attend. She likes her school and I think she’d enjoy going in for a few mornings to see some classmates and teachers and read some more. Check into school activities for the “off season”; no homework required.

As with most things, it’s hard to predict what kids want or will like. But summertime is a good opportunity for children to explore, in the woods, in some books and within themselves.


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