A convert to summer camps

One mother discovers that filling a whole summer with unstructured play time is a very big challenge and not necessarily the best option either.



Just how busy should kids be in the summer? They’ve worked hard at school all year and, after all, it is their vacation time – don’t they deserve a break? This is an issue I have struggled with for a number of years. What should my kids do all summer – go to camp or just hang out and do unstructured activities? Or maybe I should throw in a few swimming and soccer lessons? 

It's all so confusing. The experts tell us that our children are overscheduled with too many activities and too little free time. They tell us we should just let our kids be kids; let them make their own fun with their friends in the neighbourhood.

When I read this, I imagine pick-up baseball games in the backyard, hide-and-seek with a big group of friends, catching fire flies in jars at dusk and lemonade stands on hot, hazy, summer afternoons. But wait a minute…that was my childhood. There were lots of neighbourhood kids to play with during the summer months. Moms stayed home full time. No one in my area owned a cottage, so we just hung out and made our own fun. 

It’s different today. Many mothers work outside the home, including during the summer months. The smaller size of families means there actually aren't as many children as when I was growing up. We can no longer assume that our kids will just go outside and suddenly find a local group of playmates. Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way.

A number of years ago, I gave my three school-age kids a summer without scheduled activities. They said it was what they wanted; they'd hang out, play with friends, etc. Well, that year we discovered just how busy families can be in the summer. One friend left for his family’s cottage in New Brunswick on July 1 and didn’t return until the start of school.

Another neighbourhood friend was coming and going all summer long from short family getaways. As for friends from school, most were at day camp until 5:30 p.m. or later each weekday.  My daughter, who was then a preschooler, didn’t have a single playmate, boy or girl, on our street.

My kids took swimming lessons at the pool, although the unseasonably cold weather made even that challenging. They managed to get together with friends occasionally and I took them to visit places like the Biodome and Insectarium. But it was not a stellar summer. Often, they watched television, played Nintendo or computer games... and fought.
So the following summer, I decided to do things differently. I would keep my kids busy – so busy they wouldn’t have time to fight. There were some muted protests from those concerned, but I persevered with my plan. Everybody was going to try one week of camp somewhere, I said brightly.

After some persuasion, my sons agreed to try a week of morning camp at the Pointe Claire Canoe Club. The camp counsellor, Collin, did a great job instructing them on how to handle a canoe and kayak, teaching them about water safety, and making it all fun. They had such a great time they insisted on going back for two additional weeks. 

My daughter chose to spend her afternoons at the Ecomuseum Nature Camp, and loved every minute of it. She learned about the animals, helped feed them, made crafts, played games, and just enjoyed spending time outdoors with the other kids and the counsellor.

During the weeks they weren't at camp, I established a structured set of activities for them. Mornings were busy with lessons and socializing at the pool. Afternoons passed quietly with reading (30 minutes), writing (one page), and guitar practice. The boys took a weekly guitar lesson, visited a French tutor, and occasionally attended a library book club. A couple of evenings a week, the kids played soccer. 

There was an occasional bit of grumbling, but, in general, the schedule seemed to work. It was a productive and satisfying two months for the kids, with minimal fighting and much less television viewing than in previous summers. They certainly learned a lot at their camps. And, after two months of lessons, the kids were all much stronger swimmers.

I realize not everyone wants to be as busy as we were – although I know of busier families. And there certainly still are neighbourhoods with lots of kids. Those of you with local summer playmates for your children should count your blessings. And some gifted stay-at-home moms relish the opportunity to spend more quality time with their children doing arts and crafts, playing games, or perhaps going on occasional outings. But that doesn’t work for many of us. Coming up with two hours of birthday activities is hard enough; a whole summer is overwhelming. 

So I’ll stick with a plan that works for my family. Speaking of which… I’ve got to go now. I need to find my checkbook and get in line. It’s time to register my kids for summer camp and other activities.  There is a long list of options – and they don’t want to miss a thing.

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