About 4.5 years ago, I wrote an article decrying the summer camp experience known as “Color War”, in which friends are broken apart into artificially-created teams for the sole purpose of improving sportsmanship (sportspersonship, I suppose — I went to a co-ed camp) and (I guess) showing kids how great it is when they can finally be with their friends after being forced to be separate for a week. Maybe we were supposed to make new friends, but that never happened for me.
Anyway, my summer camp experiences were checkered at best when I was young. Now that I’m an adult with a kid of my own, and she’s in summer camp herself, I have a whole new set of woes. Here are six of the worst things about summer camp (as an adult):
6. Cost — Dude, summer camp is hella expensive. For your basic day camp, you’re paying anywhere from $100-$1300 per week. Sleepaway camps cost way more than that (and realistically they should). But what are you paying for? A few adults to be in charge, some high schoolers or college students to actually watch the kids, some activities, and a park or community center. I went to a camp at a county park, and for the most part we were in the largest shelter they offered, plus some associated fields and such, plus one smaller pavilion. For the largest shelter, it’s now $200 per day; inflation rates tell me it should have been $110 per day back in 1990 (when I was going to camp there). $110 per day times 8 weeks of camp is $4400, and if the average cost of a week of camp was $100, then all they needed were six campers to go the entire time to rent the shelter. Nowadays… well, the average week for my daughter is $400 (plus you have to have a membership to the place where the camp is held, which is $700-$1000 per year for the lowest-cost option), so do with that what you will.
It happened to me: My first year as a camp counselor, I made $100 per week. To be fair, I was 14, and camp counselor-ing is one of the few jobs kids that age can have. I thought it was a lot of money (and in 1992 it was), but that was for 40 hours of work per week (35 regular camp hours, plus two before/after shifts per week), not including the extra time we spent there because my mom was the assistant director. The federal minimum wage in 1992 was $4.25/hour. Do with that information what you will as well.
5. Choice — I feel like, when I was a kid, there were three choices of camp: mine, the other one like mine, or sleepaway. But nowadays not only does my kid have the choice to go to multiple camps, but even within one camp there are multiple options. This year she’s doing four weeks of performing arts across three different camps, plus graphic art, plus a month of sleepaway. In previous years she’s done as many as nine different specialty camps (art, music, architecture, sports, outdoors, general camp, etc). Y’know how when you go through Netflix you can’t find anything to watch? Yeah… it’s kind of like that.
It happened to me: Now, to be fair, I spent two years at a camp run by the local community college. You had eight periods per day (seven if you did sailing, because that was a two-hour block), and you would pick various things to do during each of your eight one-hour periods. Kind of like school, but fun. I remember one year I did volleyball, archery, swimming, sailing (two hours, remember), golf, indoor rec (pool, foosball, air hockey, etc), and… I can’t remember the eighth thing. I admit I had a great time (and it probably wasn’t cheap to go) but now there are even more choices.
4. Food — Most schools have a lunch program, and if you want to enroll your kid in it, you can do that (or you can just send your kid with a few bucks every day). In the county where I live, it’s $4.10 combined for breakfast and lunch, which is actually pretty close in price to what I paid back in middle school. And sleepaway camps have to have meal plans because you can’t send a month of food with your kid. But day camps often don’t have a food option, so if you’re not used to sending your kid with lunch, you’re adding extra time to each day to get the kid’s lunch prepped. And even if you do send lunch with your kid every school day, camps are often outside, so you need to take extra precautions to keep food from going bad. It’s not a lot of money, but it can be a royal pain in the ass.
It happened to me: I used to be a camp counselor for the little kids (ages 5 and 6). I liked them, and they liked me; I talked to them like people, and they behaved better for me than for most other counselors. I remember one year there was this girl Rachel who had had an ear infection and had to have drops put in every day. I used to carry a cooler with my lunch in it (a hard-sided Igloo, not a soft-sided lunch bag), so I’d keep her drops in there for her. By the time lunch rolled around, they were nice and cold and it was hilariously adorable how, as soon as the cold drops hit her ear, she’d do a crazy dance. And the crazy part was, she actually got a kick out of it too even though I’m sure it was at least somewhat uncomfortable. One of my best camp memories.
3. Timing — Camps have to work around a lot of things — school schedules, holidays, vacations, availability of locations, and so on. Sometimes you have multiple school districts with kids attending the same camp, and with sleepaway camps you have kids from all over the place. Schools in New York start around Labor Day; schools in Georgia start in the beginning of August. So finding a camp that fits your kid’s school schedule can be a pain in the ass, especially if the school is on an adjusted schedule or the kid has a special event or family trip coming up. (Oh, and by the way, I have never seen a day camp that cuts the price by 20% for Memorial Day week or July 4th week. Not ever.)
It happened to me: One of my favorite things to do in the summer was not go to school or camp. Not for the entire time, but I always relished having a free week. My mother was a teacher and the camp’s assistant director, so she was on the same schedule as my sister and me; that meant if summer was ten weeks and camp was only eight then we’d have two weeks of not doing any required activities. And then the school schedule changed to a nine-week summer break, and the camp schedule changed to a nine-week (three-session) rotation, and there went my free week. I was quite sad about this.
2. Transportation — Some camps have buses. Many don’t. Most parents work. Camps start between 8 and 9, and end between 4 and 5; jobs start at the same times. Camps are often not anywhere near parents’ jobs. Not all camps have before-care and/or after-care. You can see where I’m going with this. Every summer I completely reformulate my schedule so I can get my kid to camp and still get my work done; this year I’m working from 6am-8am, transporting the kid to camp, and hopefully getting to work at 9am for my morning meeting (there’s always a morning meeting). But even if the camp has a bus, it can still be a nightmare to get the kid on and off of it, especially when it’s running late.
It happened to me: I believe I was eleven when I got the chicken pox (this was in the days before the vaccine). I had just started a one-month summer camp program at my school where I would do computer programming in the morning, and then… I honestly can’t remember what I was doing in the afternoon. The camp had several buses, but instead of having bus stops the bus would just pick us up at our houses. It was convenient, but it also meant that I was getting picked up at 7:30am and riding for over an hour. At least it was first-on-first-off, which meant the bus ride home was only fifteen minutes, but still. A long ride. Fortunately on day three of camp I broke out with chicken pox and no longer had to ride the bus. By the time I was better, that two-week camp session was long since over.
1. Dismissal — Camp dismissal is a nightmare. Drop-off is fine; kids arrive over a half-hour period prior to the start of camp. But when it’s time for dismissal, parents are often lined up around the block, and the ones at the front of the line are usually there up to half an hour early. They just sit there, in the air conditioning, their kids sometimes seeing them and wanting to leave, even though the day hasn’t ended. Or it might take forever to even find the kid, holding up the line. Or there might be people trying to leave the parking spots who are blocked in by the line of carpool vehicles, and even if you want to move to let that person out, where can you possibly go? Add to that the fact that camp carpool is often far less organized than school carpool and it’s just a disaster waiting to happen.
It happened to me: For the past three years, my daughter has taken a bus to camp. Drop-off has been relatively simple — wait in the car for the bus to arrive, and then she goes and lines up and gets onto the bus. Coming back, though, there’s always a gaggle of parents waiting for the bus to arrive. And often there is no line, so once the bus pulls into the parking lot it’s a mad dash to the release point and it’s up to the bus counselors to organize things. If they even bother. I wish more people would just organize themselves into a line automatically, like they do pretty much anywhere else. Hell, at the last Falcons game I went to, all the men in the restroom had organized themselves into neat lines as they waited for a spot to open up, and had even left a good three feet behind the dude in front so that people who finished had a clear path to walk. If attendees at an NFL game can do that, camp parents can too.
Let me talk a little more about dismissal. Specifically, security. When I was a counselor, we didn’t have dismissal numbers; we just got to know the parents and we’d call into the cabin when a parent rolled up. Nowadays, there are carpool placards, and that’s all well and good, but what about when letting kids off the bus? My daughter’s camp has a system where you give your carpool number (assigned by the camp at the start of the summer) and the kid gets checked off a list before being allowed to disembark the bus. It nominally works.
Except that you have parents just sort of shouting out the numbers to the counselors when they get called on. An unsavory adult could easily have memorized some kids’ numbers and claimed them using the same techniques abductors have used for decades. And there’s no “sign here”, so there’s no way to know who picked up the kid in the first place. With the mob of people crowding the bus entrance, how would a counselor remember who called out a specific name and number? It’s just a riot of tennis skirts, yoga pants, khakis, shirts and ties, sunglasses, and people on their phones.
I feel like, given how cavalier parents are about security sometimes, the camps (and schools) really ought to be better about this. Although they’re putting $8-$10/hour teenagers in charge, so who knows what the likelihood is of that ever happening.
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