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Create the Most Meaningful Summer for Your Child

8 tips for planning a summer rich in learning and low-key fun

Author Elisa Murray

Published on: February 01, 2018


Ah, the paradoxes of summer. We want it to be rich in uncomplicated fun — berry picking, beach hopping and backyard games. We want to chip away at that fabled summer bucket list. We also want to give kids the opportunity to explore interests that don’t fit into the jam-packed school year. And, of course, we still need to Get. Stuff. Done. 

Is it any wonder that summer in the Puget Sound region has a hard time living up to our outsize expectations? 

Here’s a secret that I’ve learned the hard way: A little summer planning goes a long way. Whether it’s for camps or trips, putting a stake in the ground in March is the thing that makes it happen in August (and saves money). Here’s how a few planning and program gurus fight that old enemy procrastination. 

Figure out a few low-key goals.

I know, I know. Summer goals — what? But even if your goal is to make sure your kids have plenty of unscheduled, outdoor fun, it’s worth naming it. What other kinds of experiences are a priority? Hands-on learning? A creative approach to academics? Lots and lots of play? Is there a shared goal for the whole family (e.g., a vacation that’s truly unplugged)? 

Pro tip: Involve the kids early and often in planning. Post a big sheet of paper where everyone can write down ideas. 

Get out the calendar.

Now start scheduling. Get a large-format paper calendar and pop in your “big rocks” — the big family vacations and other outings that are definitely happening. Pencil in some dreams, too: that group camping trip or first backpacking expedition. It’s the first step toward making it happen. If your kids are going to sleepaway camp, add that to the calendar as well, as that requires early planning. 

Pro tip: You can also schedule your unscheduled time. Want a week that’s dedicated to spontaneous outings? Block it out.

Find a default camp.

If your kids need to be in camps all summer, it can be tempting to hop among camps. Seattle parent coach Sarina Behar Natkin warns against the different-camp-every-week strategy, especially for younger kids.

“It’s like starting a new job every week,” she says. “You have to figure out where you go to the bathroom, where you eat, who you ask for your help.” She recommends identifying one or two “home base” camps, a familiar option that offers fun, flexibility and lots of coverage.

Bonus points for affordability and being close to home. Good options include camps hosted by the child’s after-school program, the local Boys and Girls Club, a YMCA branch or your local community center. 

Specialty camps with multi-week sessions also reduce transitions. Summer Fun is an affordable two-week theater camp. Quiet Heart Wilderness School in Edmonds offers a number of two-week sessions. This summer, Pacific Science Center has back-to-back sessions for a couple of its camps; kids can take one week of, say, Animation 101, followed by a second week of Animation camp at a more advanced level. The University of Washington offers two-week enrichment programs for kids of many ages. 

Pro tip: Many popular camps that are affordable and have broad coverage also fill up quickly, so mark down registration dates ASAP. 

Find a special specialty camp.

Once you’ve got the default camp, consider adding in a few specialty camps that your child is excited to try. The options can be overwhelming — rock climbing, fencing, archery, etiquette — so consider attending a local camp fair. (ParentMap offers four free Camp Fair events every February and March.)

When you find a specialty camp that really resonates with your kid, consider a repeat performance. Last summer, when my then 7-year-old son was finishing his second year of a weeklong Wilderness Awareness School camp at Saint Edward State Park, he said to me, “I always get sad on the last day of camp.” Bingo.

Pro tip: If you’re looking for a one-stop shop for fun and enriching summer programs, also check out independent schools such as The Evergreen School and The Meridian School, which offer full-day coverage and a rich array of camps. 

‘Scaffold’ to sleepaway camp.

Is sleepaway camp in your child’s future? If not, maybe it should be. Overnight camp can be an oasis of unplugged summer fun for kids, where they gain independence, learn new skills and meet new friends.

“Our daughter comes back from three weeks more mature,” says Seattle mom Elise Gruber, who’s been sending her now 10-year-old daughter to an overnight camp for three years. “And the break we get from each other is important.”

If you want your kid to attend sleepaway camp by age 10, start exploring options and perhaps book a “taster” camp or a family camp weekend to try a year or two beforehand. 

Pro tip: Overnight camps come in every possible variety. Find a great starter list.

Get creative with academics.

Many families favor summer programs, such as those offered by The Museum of Flight and Pacific Science Center, which skip formal academics in favor of an exploratory, hands-on approach. You can also find more focused academic enrichment programs, such as the WISE camps out of Bellevue, Girls Rock Math or the Russian School of Mathematics.

If your kids do need specific academic help, try tutoring — and it doesn’t have to be a formal program. After her now 7-year-old son, Tommy, completed kindergarten, Seattle mom Lisa Chang hired two fourth-grade boys whom Tommy admired to tutor him in math and reading.

Initially, Chang did much of the prep work for the sessions, but with time the older boys have taken on more responsibility and added their own spin. “[Tommy] was excited to go, and it kept him in practice during the summer with reading and math,” says Chang. And, she adds, the low-key sessions have been a confidence booster for the older boys. 

Scout early for bargains

What is the key to lining up any summer program? Early enrollment. Many camps offer early-bird discounts if you enroll by March or April. And if you want financial assistance, you need to apply early.

“The sooner you have a financial assistance request in, the better,” says Leandra Shelton, youth services supervisor for Metro Parks Tacoma. Metro Parks offers hundreds of summer day camps, with financial assistance available to kids who qualify for free or reduced lunches. 

Pro tip: If day camp isn’t in your budget, your community may offer free drop-in programs that resemble camp. For example, Metro Parks Tacoma offers a free playground program, with lunch included, at six parks during the summer. Seattle offers a similar lunch/activity program, as well as free swimming lessons at local beaches. Also, keep free summer classes in mind. A couple to note: Apple stores offer free tech classes, and Microsoft stores offer free YouthSpark coding classes year around.

Learning is everywhere.

Andy Shouse, chief program officer for nonprofit Washington STEM, can tick off the benefits of attending day camps. But the dad of two is also a champion for helping parents realize that everyday activities — especially in the summer, when life is less rushed — are a great tool for learning, especially STEM skills. Grocery shopping, road trips, camping: It’s all fodder.

“There are so many ways to gather and organize data and information, and to be reflective about the world,” he says. “That’s STEM.” 

Pro tip: Consider starting a new summer ritual that blends learning and bonding. In the summer, for example, Shouse and his 13-year-old son do 8- to 10-mile hikes around the city. His son gets to experiment with STEM skills, such as reading a map. And, says Shouse, “It’s just super quality time together.” 

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