I enrolled my kids in Vermont summer camps for the first time this year. While lots of parents can make the same claim, my newbie status carries the additional weight of initiating this process with older kids. You see, for many prior summers, my mom watched my now 12-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter. We called her the Nanny Nonnie. (Yes, I know how lucky I was for seven glorious years.)
What happened to shatter my cushy summer childcare arrangements and throw me head first into the chaotic, confusing, expensive land of Vermont summer camps?
For starters, my kids’ difference in age and gender created DEFCON 5 level fights when they spent entire summers together with one caregiver and no other kids. Crossed boundaries understandably came into play as well. Spending all day every day with my kids each summer put my mom in the mindset of parent instead of grandparent. Finally, as my kids got older and smarter, they just needed more entertainment, socialization with other kids, and a variety of enrichment options.
Suddenly, with the seemingly limitless Vermont summer camp world as our oyster, I started my research. While one camp, in particular, rose to the top of our list as the easiest and most highly recommended option, disappointment instantly struck when I learned my son, a newly minted 7th grader, just barely aged out of this camp. I also hesitated to enroll my daughter in seven straight weeks of the same camp her first summer, just in case she hated it. Instead, I investigated every camp I thought might interest my kids, puzzling together a 10-week patchwork of activities, and presented the choices to both of them for a final vote. Together, we agreed on the Vermont summer camps that most interested them and worked out best for me in terms of location and schedule.
In our first foray with summer camps, here’s what I learned:
Start Early Researching and Registering for Vermont Summer Camps
The highly regarded, reasonably priced non-specialty camps fill up early and fast. Registration for many of them opens in February. Mid-winter, I registered my daughter at 6:30 a.m. standing in a towel at my kitchen island and got her into the three weeks of camp we wanted. I know other moms who logged in at 12:01 a.m. to secure their spots – for summer camps in June and July.
July 4th Week
From my observation, (almost) every parent in Vermont takes this week off work to capitalize on more time off for fewer vacation days. Conversely, I always try to work that week because I dislike the increased traffic and crowds at my favorite kid-friendly summer hang-outs. With my daughter and my son both enrolled in camps for July 4th week, I (briefly) breathed a sigh of relief – until I received an emailed cancellation notice for my son’s camp due to low enrollment.
Following the Scotch-tape childcare model, my husband, the grandparents, and I split the week to spend time with my son. Despite the scheduling disruption, we learned a valuable lesson. Splitting up the kids and spending rare one-on-one time with our eldest led to a more peaceful house and provided fantastic bonding opportunities. We let our son pick the activities and set the agenda for his time with us each day (within reason), and we followed through. He got to watch movies beyond his sister’s age range, go out to adult-friendly restaurants with us for meals, and play marathon matches of X-wing and Armada with my husband.
Another snag in our patchwork quilt of summer camps arose when I received a letter inviting my daughter to attend summer school. In addition to my heartbreak on her behalf for her struggles in school, this information came as an unwelcome surprise, as her teacher never informed me she made this recommendation. I found myself in a quandary. Summer school for her grade runs for one week from 8:30 – 11:30 a.m. at her school in our town. With her booked in an all-day camp that week, my decision involved choosing between all-day childcare to allow me to work a full week’s schedule or the extra educational help for my daughter.
After asking the right questions, I learned some camps waive their cancellation fees in the event of summer school. After enlisting the grandparents for half-day childcare in the afternoon of her summer school week, I broke the news to my daughter. While she cried at first and told me going to school in the summer is literally, “Her worst nightmare,” I believe this experience may motivate her to try harder in her schoolwork next year – if nothing else, to avoid summer school.
The unpopularity of Some Vermont Summer Camps
The final summer camp curveball came when, less than three days before school let out for summer, I received a cancellation notice for my kids’ first scheduled week of summer camp. Apparently, I, with my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature and my theater-interested kiddos, landed squarely in the parenting minority in thinking a camp centered around the production of one of Shakespeare’s more obscure comedies sounded like a fabulous idea.
Once again, I called in the reinforcements of my husband and the grandparents to share childcare coverage for the first week of summer. My daughter also experienced the huge disappointment of missing out on staging a play with her older brother. After watching him shine on stage in his supporting role in the spring school musical, she looked forward to sharing a similar experience.
The expense of Vermont Summer Camps
For those of us who celebrated the start of public school as the end of paying expensive daycare and preschool costs, summer camps hit us hard in the wallet once again. If you stick with non-specialty day camps, they cost around $200 per kid per week, on average. Take advantage of these early in the summer (and register for them early), since most of them close up shop for the month of August.
Specialty camps cost between $300 and $350 per kid per week. The schedules for specialty camps also may be less conducive to your regular work schedule, unless your employer allows you unlimited flexibility. For example, one of our specialty camps started at 9 a.m. and ended at 4 p.m., meaning I arrived at work around 9:30 a.m. Another camp ran a short day, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with the option of expensive after camp care ($20 per day per kid).
Since less expensive non-specialty camps usually end by the first week in August, it quickly became apparent to me that scheduling our yearly summer vacation for August instead of July might bear considering. Unfortunately for us, scheduling even one week of vacation in August always feels like trying to jam a too-large foot into a too-small shoe.
My husband takes an annual work trip in August. My ex-husband’s birthday is in mid-August, and he gets annoyed if I take the kids on an out-of-town trip on his birthday. School usually starts mid-week during the last week of August. On top of these challenges, I flat out gave up on scheduling an August vacation this year when we received invitations to kid-free weddings two Saturdays in a row at the end of August. Maybe next year I can figure out this August vacation thing…
Morning Preparation Time for Vermont Summer Camps
In the absence of a school cafeteria, most camps require kids to bring their own food. Some even prohibit the kids from accessing nearby vending machines. As a result, plan on packing two snacks and a bag lunch for each child on every camp day. Given the heat, the outdoor activities, and the absence of air conditioning in many indoor camp spaces, send a partially frozen oversize water bottle with each kid as well to help them stay hydrated. Finally, set aside at least 10 minutes per kid each morning for the daily head-to-toe sunscreen slathering and bug spray misting. Camps also want you to pack extra of these goodies, so I recommend looking for travel-sized options to send with your kiddos.
In spite of all the unexpected twists and turns, the expense, and the scheduling challenges, our first summer camp experience as a family nevertheless played out as a mostly positive adventure. My kids enjoyed their various camps, learned new skills, made new friends, and got some much-needed space from each other. My husband and I strengthened our parenting partnership and pulled in our grandparent village as needed. Now, we all feel more prepared and ready to do it again next summer!