No Summer Camp? Now What?

Never have I been happier that my kids are young adults. As summer approaches, and it looks more and more likely that summer camps will be closed or operating with a significant reduction in both campers and hours, I am thinking about all the working parents out there who depend on camp for childcare but also for an enriching experience for their children. Summer camp provides far more than just supervision for children so that parents can go to work. They provide exercise and fresh air, socialization, skill development, and exposure to visual and performing arts. Overnight camps provide all of this and the opportunity to gain independence and to build relationships with peers outside our own communities. The pandemic is taking away a lot of this, but parents do not have to forgo it all.

Child clients and their parents alike are expressing worry about the summer. One particularly outdoorsy kid said to me earlier this week:

I’m afraid I’m going to be stuck playing video games all summer. – Austin, age 9

To which his father replied:

Your mother and I will do everything in our power to prevent that. – Dad

And then he looked to me (from my computer screen) and said, “I have no idea how we’re going to prevent that.”

This summer more than ever, families are going to be dealing with a wide range of challenges. Austin’s parents are very fortunate that they have jobs that can be done in large part remotely and that they have flexible bosses that understand the childcare dilemma. They also have a 13-year-old daughter who is willing, if not thrilled, to help out with her younger brother.

So here’s what I did over a couple of sessions with Austin and his parents. First, we brainstormed about all the things Austin typically does at summer camp that he loves: sports, outdoor games, swimming, horseback riding, woodworking, and hiking. We also identified other camp activities that he might not enjoy as much but still have value: community service, arts and crafts, farming/gardening, and cooking. (Sounds like a pretty awesome camp, doesn’t it!?) We separated the activities into two lists: those that can be done at home and those that can’t. The lists looked like this:

Doable at Home

  • Some sports
  • Outdoor games
  • Woodworking
  • Community service
  • Arts and crafts
  • Vegetable gardening
  • Cooking

Not Doable at Home

  • Some sports
  • Swimming
  • Horseback riding
  • Hiking

Next, we talked about the summer camp schedule. Austin was quick to point out that he saw no reason to get up at 7am if he didn’t have to catch the camp bus. He asked if perhaps he could sleep until 8 and “lounge around” until 9. From that starting point, we built two schedules, one for good-weather days and one for rainy or scorching hot days. Here’s the one for nice weather on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays:

9-10am Sports, outdoor games, bike-riding

10-11am Plan and work on a community service project, arts and crafts

12n-1pm Prepare and eat lunch (may include cooking and/or baking)

1-2pm Tending vegetable garden, cooking/baking

2-3pm More sports, outdoor games, bike-riding

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, one of Austin’s parents will be free (both are working four 10-hour days, thanks to flexible bosses). On those days, Austin, his sister, and one parent can go on field trips such as hikes, mural tours, and horseback riding or do activities at or near home that require a parent such as playing tennis, woodworking, swimming at a neighbor’s pool, and more complex cooking. Much of this depends on the good will of big sister, good will which has been strengthened by a financial incentive.

Now, not every family is this organized or scheduled and not all children are as cooperative and good-natured as Austin and his sister. Another approach that might work better for many families, including those with tweens, teens, and young adults is to identify shared goals for the summer such as staying active and fit, being productive and/or creative, helping at home and in the community, etc. and then allowing all the children to determine for themselves how they will meet those goals. A 14-year-old client of mine, whose plan before the pandemic was to be a counselor-in-training at a local performing arts camp, really liked this suggestion, and given a week to come up with a mission for the summer, Carly produced this plan for herself:

  • Get into shape by exercising at least 3 times a week
  • Practice cello at least 6 days a week and prepare piece for audition for chamber orchestra
  • Draw and paint a mural on my bedroom wall
  • Read at least 6 books, including the 2 books required for school
  • Get Etsy shop up and running, including tripling my inventory of beads
  • Donate percentage of money from Etsy to local food bank
  • Learn to cook some simple recipes

An important part of this plan is keeping her full-time working single mom apprised of her progress so that Carly feels a sense of accountability and so that her mother doesn’t worry constantly that Carly is wasting the summer.

Lest you think all of my child clients are precious angels all the time (I love them all but some of them are seriously CHALLENGING!), I should note that Austin and Carly both have some significant struggles. Austin has Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder and some learning differences. He can have a hard time controlling his impulses and has a great deal of difficulty tolerating boredom. He will be well-served by a regular schedule with clear expectations that also includes flexibility and choice.

Carly is a very bright, introverted, creative girl who experiences episodes of depression that can leave her feeling hopeless and even suicidal at times. She will benefit from setting goals for herself, being held accountable, and having the freedom to immerse herself in the things she values most, music and art.

Every family and every young person is going to face unique challenges in the upcoming months. This will certainly not be the summer we had all be looking forward to during the cold days of winter. As parents, we need to honor two realities. Young people of all ages are disappointed that this summer will not be what they expected and are accustomed to AND there is much that we and they can do to make this summer a good experience for all.

Stay well, friends.

[Names and potentially ientifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]

About Dr. Sayers

I am a child psychologist and mother of two. This blog is about the lessons we, as parents, can learn about parenting from the things that child clients have told me over my 20 years in private practice. I continue to work with children and families at Southampton Psychiatric Associates (www.southamptonpsychiatric.com) which serves Bucks, eastern Montgomery, and northeast Philadelphia counties in Pennsylvania. In addition, I train psychology graduate students and psychiatry residents at Temple University.
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