Families hit with summer camp sticker shock this year, take heart. You're not alone.
Some camps have suffered declining enrollment during this recession, according to Charlie Caspari, a St. Louis-based spokesman with the American Camp Association, while others have benefited from price-conscious consumers, he said. “People who may have been going to a high-end camp, may now be choosing a lower-cost option,” he said.
But summer enrichment is still important for students, who tend to lose math and reading gains during the summer months.
The National Summer Learning Association cited research showing that more than two-thirds of the achievement gap between high- and low-income students can be traced to how children spend their summer vacation. Research shows that students who have high-quality summer experiences perform better on standardized tests and return to school more motivated.
Here are some suggestions for how to survive a low-budget summer with your children:
BARTERING IS BACK
The new economic reality is that everyone is looking to save a buck. Parents with any sort of specialized skill, from gardening to computers, can offer their services in exchange for a price break at a camp. If you can offer to teach campers a foreign language, lead a class in yoga or take professional photographs, the camp may offer your child a discounted enrollment fee.
"It never hurts to ask," Caspari said. He knows of several situations in which nurses or other professionals were able to negotiate discounted rates in exchange for service. "My cousin is a doctor," he said. "He serves as the camp doctor, and his kids go to camp for free."
Other camps may be willing to work out payment plans. Certain day camps may offer pro-rated fees for part-time campers. The key is to ask, even if those discounts are not advertised.
"Many camps offer some kind of scholarship help, and I think you see a lot more people asking for that," Caspari said. "Camps work very hard to make that possible."
Get together with other parents to hire a teacher or a college student to engage your children in a special activity, such as art or music, even if it is just for a few hours a week. Check with a local moms or dads group or your neighbors to see if there is interest in pooling resources to afford lessons that would be too expensive one-on-one.
Or, you can create your own summer co-op with a few like-minded parents with various talents. Each member agrees to take on a project with the group of children. The children benefit, and the adults each get a turn to share and take a break.
RETHINK 'FREE' ATTRACTIONS
The typical free, child-friendly places you visit during the rest of the year may have much more to offer in the summer.
Investigate special programs at the library, neighborhood pool, the zoo, museums and parks. Often, there are a multitude of free events, such as story hours, special exhibits and craft parties, offered during in the summer. Sign up your child for the library's summer reading program, which awards incentive prizes for meeting reading goals.
And, take a new approach to visiting old favorites. Turn a trip to the zoo or a museum into a scavenger hunt. You can make an outing more engaging by creating simple games and allowing your child a role in coming up with the idea.
STRUCTURE THE DAY
Of course, there should be hours to explore, play and just hang out in the summer. That's an important part of how children learn. But it helps to the have a rhythm to the day. Set aside blocks of time for certain activities, such as the visiting the pool, reading, creating art and playing outside. Young children still crave routines, which can offer comfort and alleviate complaints of boredom.
Plus, if they know there is an allotted time for television and video games, they are less likely to beg for hours of screen time.
TACKLE A NEW PROJECT
Brainstorm ideas with your child on a few long-term projects you can tackle over the next few months. Choose something that you and child can work on regularly throughout the summer, and that come with a payoff at the end. Education.com had these great suggestions:
Grow a garden — Have the kids plan a garden, budget the money to buy seeds, plant the seeds, watch your garden grow (and gain some patience along the way).
Tell a story — Use postcards, old photos, magazine and newspaper clippings, and words and pictures to tell the story of your family, your town, your city, or make up an imaginary story. When the work is finished, bind it and display it as your latest coffee table book. Or you can try a photo-sharing website such as Shutterfly or KodakGallery. Summer is a great time to write letters to grandparents, keep a journal and start an album. Even the youngest of children can make drawings to document their stories.
Take a trip — Eventually, the children are going to want to get out of the house. You can find a location as close as a day trip into the nearest city, or as lengthy as a two-week road trip, and involve your children in mapping the trip, planning an itinerary and plotting attractions.