Fighting My Way Into Summer Camp: The Hunger Games for Parents

Fighting My Way Into Summer Camp: The Hunger Games for Parents

“Summertime and the livin’ is easy”: a line from the 1968 Ella Fitzgerald song, Summertime. Yes, “the livin’” should be easy, but in the months leading up to the summer and even during the summer, if you are a parent, life is anything but.

There are aspects of parenthood that are distinctive to the DMV. One of them is the furor surrounding summer camps. Even as winter coats are still being worn and hot chocolate is being sipped, questions like “What is your child doing this summer?” and “What camps are you considering?” dominate conversations.

As a kid, I took tennis lessons and had a stint at baton twirling at a local park in the summer. I wasn’t a kid who enjoyed physical exertion, especially in Louisiana’s sizzling heat and humidity, so I opted for indoor summer activities. I participated in summer reading programs at my local library and was featured in my local newspaper for my reading accomplishments. I also spent my summers watching soap operas. I could tell you which characters died and were resurrected as a different character, who had an evil twin and whose marriage was on the rocks. There was an occasional summer trip, but that was it. Summer camp attendance was not the talk of the town in my community.

As a working mom in Northern Virginia, the idea of a child with no scheduled summer activities is disconcerting. When my daughter was in preschool, the school operated in the summer and just renamed the activities as “summer camp,” so it was a no-brainer for us to keep her there. When Harper was in kindergarten and 1st grade, she participated in Fairfax County’s School Age Child Care summer program where she danced, took arts and crafts classes, swam and participated in field trips. Easy breezy.

As Harper started getting older, we decided to investigate other options based on her emerging interests. She loves to sing so I thought that a musical theater camp could be good for her, or maybe something educational to reduce summer learning loss. When I surveyed the options, the factors that were important to me in the selection of a summer camp could be summed in the “TDP Formula” (time, distance and diversity, proximity). We prioritized finding an environment where she wouldn’t be the only African American child in attendance.

One year, by the time I started to examine camp options, most of them were already booked and I was faced with waitlists. Some camps were far from our home. I was also startled to see that many of these camps ended at noon! The times and locations reminded me of our preschool search. I thought those days were over. To avoid playing the waiting list game the following year, I got on email lists for organizations such as Moonlit Wings, Fairfax County Park Authority and Girl Scouts. We ended up selecting Fairfax County, as the county had numerous locations and times and was fairly diverse.

My next task was to get accustomed to the Hunger-Games-like registration process. When registration opens, a parent must be armed with these items readily at hand: credit card, camp course number, camp name, location, etc. A key component in any good camp registration process is knowledge of the camp’s refund process. I had my lists and was ready to go. The first year that we registered Harper to attend the county’s camps, I successfully registered her within the first hour and a half on the first day of registration.

As Harper matures, my husband and I face several realities. Kids are different today. They engage in different types of activities and have different expectations, and parents must adjust accordingly. I am beginning to embrace the idea of a sleepaway camp as Harper is now a tween. This means back to the drawing board. I will still apply my TDP formula as part of my registration armor.

An invisible, but ever-present part of my TDP formula is “F” for family. We usually go to Louisiana for a few weeks right after the school year ends so Harper can spend time with my mom, and around July 4th, we spend time in Chicago with my husband’s side of the family. Even with these trips, we still register for camps, but cancel if need be. In this overscheduled world, it’s OK for kids to slow down in the summer, and even experience boredom. While camps help children learn new skills and form lifelong memories, summer is also a great time for families to reconnect, recharge and even make plans for the next summer.


30 Life Skills Kids Build While Away From Home

Camp Ready: Am I Ready to Send My Child to Overnight Camp?