Family Matters

The Agony of Forging the Perfect Summer Camp Schedule for Kids

Summer vacation may be fun for kids, but it's a headache for working parents who need to research an encyclopedia's worth of options for camp.

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By far the worst thing about school — at least for working parents — is that it ends. June arrives, freeing schoolchildren from their daily routine of school bus, school lunch and school books. My kids are thrilled, and I’m thrilled for them — in theory. But in practice, summer break is a whole lot of work.

Someone’s got to take care of the kids. And so, if you have any hopes of getting your paying job done, you’ve got to tackle the formidable Summer Camp Schedule. Hands down, it’s one of the worst parts of being a parent.

Planning summer camp while I’m still clad in down gear feels wrong, but millions of parents throughout the U.S. — largely moms, I’m betting — have already devoted innumerable brain cells to slicing and dicing their children’s summer camp schedules.

(MORE: When Do Babies Stop Being So Darned Cute? Age 4 1/2, Scientists Say)

I spent much of Saturday scanning dozens of potential ways to engage my three kids this summer. I was scrambling, since I was already behind the eight ball: many camps offer early registration discounts if you sign your kids up by April 1. That day had been circled in red ink on my Google calendar, theoretically. Each week it loomed closer, and yet I hadn’t been able to force myself to launch the daunting task of coordinating three kids and three schedules.

There was so much to figure out. Did I want to make it easy on myself and send them all to the same day camp, or did I want to cater to their personalities and choose camps that appealed to their individual interests? Should I force my older daughter to attend the same camp as my younger daughter so the little one would feel comfortable? Did I want my kids’ summer vacation to be an exercise in relaxation and fun? Or did I want them to — shhhh — learn something? Researchers bemoan statistics that show that children regress academically during time away from school, and there’s no shortage of brainiac camps that promise to address that problem. Finally, there’s the issue of money: could I occupy them for a summer and spend less than five figures?

But it’s not just about saving money. I was already woefully behind more organized parents, including friends who weeks ago sent me Excel spreadsheets detailing their children’s summer schedules so that I could attempt to coordinate my kids’ camps with theirs.

(MORE: Growing Up: Free-Range Kids or Smother Mother?)

Excel spreadsheets for camp? You bet. Camps have different start times and different end times. They’re located in different parts of the city. They come in at all different price points (the cheaper ones are generally the camps of yesteryear — some crafts, a game of kickball and lots of outdoor play; the pricier ones offer Big Experiences: circus arts, espionage, fashion design). And then there are the increasingly popular farm camps, which savvily combine yesteryear with big-ticket registration fees. In a piece I wrote last year about this phenomenon — Farm Camp: Would You Pay $460 to Shovel Crap? (I can’t take credit for the exquisite headline) — you can shell out hundreds of dollars a week to separate your kid from his iPhone in favor of mucking out manure.

In the end, I sneaked it all in just under the wire, clicking “register” on my final choice of camps at 11:15 p.m. Saturday night. I got my meager discounts, and I made three kids really happy and one mom and dad moderately happy. Most weeks, at least two kids will be at the same camp or near each other. One week — and just one — the eldest, an aviation nut who started identifying individual planes in the sky at age 2, will attend Junior Flight School, which is double the cost of many other camps and requires a half hour’s drive. One week — and just one — each kid will be at a different camp (regular old day camp for the little one, drama camp for the middle one and sailing camp for the eldest). With the stress of the coordination behind me, I now have a few months’ breather until the next challenge: figuring out how to get them where they’re going. Summer break may be fun for kids, but it’s hardly a vacation for parents.

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