Navigating the morass of summer camp

Too young to stay home alone or get a job, too old to strap into a bouncy chair on your desk

Published on: July 13, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: July 13, 2022 3:04 PM EDT

Leslie Streeter

Remember “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, where turning to the wrong page made the difference between discovering an ancient treasure and drowning in a swamp of quicksand and hungry alligators? Parenthood seems like that sometimes.

Pick the wrong preschool, allow even a minute too much screen time or don’t start those Mandarin lessons early enough, and your kids are doomed to forever living in the basement complaining about the quality of Hot Pockets you’ve been buying.

Then when the summer months hit, you desperately pore over random camp websites looking for anything that fits the budget, logistics and schedule. It’d be great if it was something your kid was passionate about, but if really strapped for time: “A spot just opened up at sausage-making camp! You wanna learn how to make sausage, right? WELL YOU DO NOW.”

I guess I always knew that, short of setting up a skate ramp in my newsroom, that I’d have to find something for my son to do during the summer, but I feel dumb for not factoring in the legwork and expense to expect. And wow, is it expensive — the average daily cost of a summer camp is approximately $180, according to American Camp Association president Tom Rosenberg. That’s about $900 a week, or a night at the Four Seasons Baltimore. Which is more fun, because at least I could go, too.

It would cost one of my co-workers $750 for each two-week session of the camp that they were considering for their child, which works out to $2,200 for six weeks. I acknowledge the privilege of being able to even think about spending that much when so many working parents cannot. Still I ask: If you don’t have a family member who can watch your kid for free, or a relative’s home, or perhaps a farm where you can send them — how are you supposed to afford this?

And while it’s tempting to go for the less-expensive option, particularly if you need coverage for the entire eight to nine weeks of an average summer break, “you get what you pay for,” says Bonita Lea, a veteran educator and Baltimore native. Lea has run summer programs and camps for more than a decade, including Baltimore’s SuperKids camps, a six-week academic program that attempts to curtail knowledge loss during the summer.

Lea, now the associate head of school and head of middle school at Alexandria’s Browne Academy day school (and a former Baltimore City College classmate of mine), isn’t saying that a camp has to be pricey to be rewarding. The SuperKids camps, for instance, are free for city elementary school students, and the city’s Department of Recreation and Parks offers summer camps and activities ranging from free to $200. But those programs can be limited in space or variety of experiences, which is what you want during those summer months, she says.

“[Younger kids] don’t know their passions yet, and you want to expose them to as many opportunities as possible,” Lea explained. “And at our school, camp is about $500 a week, which is like a $100 a day. You can’t even get anyone to babysit your kids for that price. You have to look at it in those terms.”

A couple of other people I spoke to about this echoed Lea’s advice about not using price as an exclusive measure for your camp choices. Deanna Cruz, who lives in Annapolis, says she started her young son out in an inexpensive but relatively boring summer daycare option with few activities, and then switched to a county-run program that was partially supplemented by government funds. That camp, she said, had nice counselors but “the kids had parents that used [it] as day care instead of a place where kids can have new experiences.”

Now 10, her son is thriving in a Christian-based camp where he is learning “fishing, boating and [is] around like-minded children. This camp is a whopping $350 a week, but he’s happy.”

It’s tempting to believe, especially when entering your credit card information into the camp website and dreading pushing “send,” that these enhanced costs are arbitrary. Not so, says Nia Daughtry of Baltimore, who has spent years working at various summer programs in the area.

“The people working directly with kids in some of the free programs aren’t certified or trained and a lot of them are teenagers, still very much children themselves,” Daughtry notes, reminding me of my own counselors at a Baltimore City recreation program in the ’70s and early ’80s. They flirted a lot with each other and we spent most of our time jumping Double Dutch and making up dances to Michael Jackson songs. So to get a quality program “you have to pay the staff that can do it, and that costs money.”

That makes sense, but where does that leave us? I guess, like everything else in our society, you get the quality you can pay for. But that’s not fair to our kids, is it? I don’t know the solution. All I know is that until my son is old enough to stay home alone or flip burgers, this is going to be an issue. Maybe I can pass him off as a really short Baltimore Banner intern?

READ MORE