More Than Just 'Bug Juice' At These Summer Camps

From 'space habitats' to whitewater rafting to simply enjoying a slower pace, numerous options exist to keep kids busy and happy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Sometime in June, millions of American schoolchildren will burst out of their classrooms for the last time this school year. They'll "shut them books and throw them away," tear home, toss their backpacks into the back of the closet with glee - and look around expectantly.

Liberation is great - but what to do with victory?

"I like to do stuff in the summer," says seventh-grader Bethany Dozeman of Holland, Mich. "I don't like to sit home. It's kind of boring when you're home for three months."

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Summer is still some time away, but many parents - spurred in part by their considerable interest in avoiding 90 days of 'I'm bored!' - are already plotting activities to help their kids enjoy the extended holiday.

In most cases, they don't have to look very far. Countless enterprises across the country have sprung up to fill the void created by the increasing numbers of two working parents and dearth of nearby family who can help care for children formerly occupied by school. The result: Whether your children are passionate about baseball or fine art, whether they want a week of day-camp or to "sleep away" for the whole summer, it shouldn't be hard to find a program they'll enjoy.

Jan Dozeman, Bethany's mother, wants her three children to take advantage of the different kinds of learning experiences the summer can offer. "It's nice for them to sit back and relax, to have a little break from the busyness of the school year," she says. "But there are so many opportunities for continued learning during the summer."

Last summer, Bethany headed south for an outer-space adventure. At the US Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala., she bunked in a three-story "space habitat" that resembles a space station and took part in a realistic space shuttle mission simulation. "It was the best vacation I ever had," she says enthusiastically.

For Adam Baratz of Newton, Mass., summer held the lure of time to hone in on his interest in computers. Two years ago, when most of his third-grade peers were just learning their way around "Where in the World is Carmen Sandeigo?" on the computer, he asked to go to Computer-Ed High-Tech Camps on the campus of Lasell College in Newton.

His parents were delighted that he wanted to go to camp. "Where we live, so many friends go off to camp or on vacations that if I didn't schedule anything, they would have no one to play with," his mother, Robin, says.

But she had doubts about a computer camp. "When he said he wanted to be behind a computer all summer, I wasn't too thrilled with the idea. I like fun in the sun. But I found out the camp has swimming, tennis, and other sports during half the day, so it was a nice compromise."

To some parents, learning to launch a rocket or program a PC is too much like a continuation of the classroom. "I've always felt that since school is so intense, summer is a time not to be scheduled," says Martha Whitmire of Lookout Mountain, Ga. "They need a break from structured time, to be able to get up when they want. It seems to me it's a catch-your-breath time."

Over the years her two sons have played Little League baseball and competed on swim teams, but "one thing that's been a focal point of our summers is our family vacation," she says. "No one else goes; the boys don't take friends. I think families don't get too much time where they're by themselves, talking to each other.

"It's just a week - we don't want them to feel we've usurped their time. But it's a time to get off in a different kind of environment and do things together - read, play games, whatever. It's an investment in our family."

Susan Gilmore of Chattanooga, Tenn., wants her three girls to "be free to create, to imagine, to make-believe during the summer." However, it's been her experience that this doesn't happen without planning. "I believe that some thought should be given to summer, but it doesn't have to mean camp or a day-care program. Something I do with my friends is co-op craft activities. We come up with a small group of girls and rotate homes once a week."

She also believes that summer's slower pace makes it an ideal time for kids to experience the joys of reading. "Summer reading programs at the public library make it so much fun. Claudia, who's 9, really likes it a lot," she says.

But single parents and families where both parents have full-time jobs outside the home rarely have the luxury of a kick-back-and-relax summer for their kids. "I have to find a camp or activity that will keep my son until 5 o'clock when I get off from work," says the single mother of a fourth-grader who is too old for traditional day-care arrangements and too young to stay home alone.

Because many parents find themselves in this situation, the number of day camps is increasing every year, says Bob Schultz of the American Camping Association in Martinsville, Ind. "Working parents are seeing that as a healthy alternative to kids sitting around the home playing Nintendo."

With camps offering options as varied as mountain biking and learning a foreign language, how do families choose the right one?

"It's important to match the child with the camp," says Kay Rice, co-director of Brush Ranch Camps in Terrero, N.M. While you may want to start with a recommendation from a neighbor or playmate, remember that children have different likes and dislikes. A camp that's right for the eight-year-old down the street may not be where your child is happiest.

Write or phone camps and ask for their brochures; some will also send videos. Mrs. Rice suggests that as the family looks at these, parents ask themselves, "Can I see my kid there? Would my child have fun doing those activities?" If the answer is yes, call the camp and talk with the director. Ask questions about the program, the director's and counselors' qualifications, the ratio of counselors to campers, and whether the camp is accredited.

The philosophy of the camp is also important. Is competition stressed or does the camp prefer noncompetitive activities? How are discipline problems handled?

If you like the answers you're given by the camp's director, ask for references from the previous season and check them out. Camp fairs held in major metropolitan areas during the spring can be time-savers as they give families the opportunity to talk with representatives of a number of different camps at one time.

Another consideration is the length of the camp stay. If a child has never been to camp before, he or she might not want to or be ready to stay away from home for a week or longer. In that case, a day camp may be best, or parents can look for a camp that offers two- or three-night sessions.

An added advantage of short sessions is that they put less of a strain on family finances than longer stays. Also, camps run by a nonprofit organization tend to be less expensive than private camps. "Most camps also offer some level of scholarships, usually based on financial need," says Mr. Schultz. "Camps range in price from $5 to $10 a day all the way up to $150, so you're going to find a camp for everyone's budget."

He recommends that families sit down and discuss summer options now; those who wait until school is out will find that most programs have been filled.

The happiest experiences come from a joint decision, many parents say. Mr. and Mrs. Dozeman were delighted that Bethany's interest in math and science grew after camp. And Adam's parents were pleased that he came home with more than an increased knowledge of computers. After becoming fast friends with a fellow camper from Florida, he has arranged to room with him this summer. "I can't wait," he says.

GUIDEBOOKS TO SUMMER CAMPS

1996/97 GUIDE TO ACCREDITED CAMPS

American Camping Association, $16.95

PETERSON'S SUMMER OPPORTUNITIES FOR KIDS ND TEENAGERS

Peterson's Guides, $21.95

THE SMART PARENT'S GUIDE TO SUMMER CAMP

By Sheldon Silver and Jeremy Solomon

Farrar, Straus & Giroux $14.95.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT CAMP, 1995-1996, THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO THE BEST SUMMER CAMP FOR YOUR CHILD

By Richard Kennedy

Times Books/Random House, $15

SO YOU'RE OFF TO SUMMER CAMP, A TRUNKLOAD OF TIPS FOR A FUN SUMMER

By Margaret M. Queen Foxglove Press, $6.95

QUESTIONS TO ASK CAMPS

*What is the camp's program emphasis?

*What are the ages of the counselors?

*Is there a certified camp director on staff?

*How does the camp handle special needs?

*May I talk to a former camper?

LOCATIONS AND TELEPHONE NUMBERS OF SUMMER CAMPS MENTIONED

*Brush Ranch Camps, Terrero, New Mexico (800) 341-4433.

*Computer-Ed High-Tech Camps Newton, Mass (800) 341-4433

*US Space Camp Hunstville, Ala. (800) 63-SPACE

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