When Summer Camp Doesn’t Work For Your Kid

Marshmallows by the Campfire
Marshmallows by the Campfire

Marshmallows by the Campfire Credit - Getty Images—witthaya prasongsin

My son, M., is seven years old. His favorite activity is to play with Legos by himself. He likes baseball, tolerates swimming, and while most kids run in spurts or dashes, he prefers the quiet solitude of distance running, and runs two miles with a sub-9 minute mile split. He goes to school willingly each morning and has a small group of friends there, whom he plays with at recess.

Yet for M, summers are the worst. He’s sensitive to big groups, noisy kids, and does poorly with too much overstimulation with too little downtime. He has no interest in sharing Legos with anyone. There is no readily-available summer camp that can meet his needs that he is willing to attend. At the start of each calendar year, the battle begins of where will he go to camp – what are the fewest hours he needs to actually do something, and what are the handful of places in which he will want to attend? Which are the ones that aren’t packed with kids and managed by a handful of underprepared teenagers? And the biggest question – which one of his parents cuts back on work hours and stays home with him if whatever chosen camp we’ve selected turns out to be an epic fail? And then what do we do?

The summer camp conundrum is an offshoot of the child care crisis, a problem exacerbated in America by the lack of any federal infrastructure to support parents of young children. The child care crisis has several branches but the most important is the lack of year-round federal support for children ages zero to five, too young to go to school. There are very limited options for school age children for childcare in the hours when school is not open, and the options for kids, like M, who can’t readily participate in group environments without additional support is even more limited. The contrast, of course, is the public school system infrastructure – designed to support every child no matter the need. M, like 7.2 other children or 15 percent of U.S. public school kids, has sufficient challenges that qualify him for an Individualized Education Program, or an “IEP” as they’re commonly referred to. IEPs are part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990, that mandates public schools to meet the educational needs of children with disabilities. This can mean anything from dyslexia, to ADHD, to mental health disorders including anxiety and depression if they impact behavior and learning, and including kids with even more severe difficulties.

But summer camps – like American private and parochial schools and much of our patchwork childcare systems – have no such requirement. The very safeguards in place to allow schools to accommodate a child’s unique needs evaporate during the summer months. Sure, the camp registration forms may have a few lines of “tell me more about your child,” but those won’t do such complications justice. It’s not the intricate, involved process an IEP is – how can it be, when there is no infrastructure in place to support it.

Summer camps were not designed to be a stand-in for public education. Camps became increasingly popular during the Industrial Revolution, as a way to give wealthier kids more time outdoors in nature when otherwise they would be spending time inside with little to do on the summer break. Child care at this time was nonexistent – stories exist of children tied to tables with a snack and another child to watch over them while parents worked, and plenty of children worked alongside their parents in factories or mines. The only group child care options available were “day nurseries” and they were largely custodial: wiped noses and cleaned tushes – nothing about ABCs or academic enrichment. It wasn’t until the late 20th century when the perception of children as young learning vessels started to catch on.

The initial shift toward academics in early childhood education was precipitated by a Reagan administration report in the early 1980s about the failure of the current education system. By 2010, a growing body of research had indicated that children learn better through engaged play rather than rote instruction. Around the same time, advances had been made in neuroscience, to create less invasive ways to study the way a child’s mind worked. “Parenting” became more of a verb and less of a noun, and the demand for better child care – including summertime options – increased. Where child care is a $60 billion industry, summer camps are an $18 billion one.

The majority of kids (like my own), live in families where both parents work. And while work can ebb and flow during the calendar year, many adult jobs (like ours) are year-round without three month summer breaks. As a country without a national paid leave policy, employees hardly have the ability to take time off for having a baby or caring for a loved one – where does the “summertime break” conundrum fit in within excused absences? And as any parent knows who has ever been called midday to pick up a recalcitrant child – the problem with a child who doesn’t like summer camp is that the feeling is often mutual. And which working parent has enough flexibility to go pick him up?

The summer camp and child care situation is exacerbated for single parents, with whom there may be no co-parent to juggle the responsibilities, and families of color. Even with IEPs and public school support, the grim statistic from the Departmentment of Education is that Black children with disabilities in the public school system are more likely to receive a disciplinary removal than all students with disabilities, and face the same higher expulsion rates in child care settings too where Black boys make up half of all preschool expulsions and suspensions. The “summer slide” where kids fall behind in math and reading is estimated to account for half the overall achievement gap between lower and higher income students. High quality summer programs could help fill those gaps, but such camps are not always affordable, accessible, or available to children with additional challenges.

Outside of the public school system, our country has no federal infrastructure to support working parents – we don’t help with child care, we don’t give paid time off for caregiving, and we place too high of a burden on parents to figure it out on their own. IDEA was a landmark piece of legislation. It changed public school from a right for most people to a right for everyone. But most public school systems close in June and reopen in August or September – leaving far too wide of a gap for most families, including those whose kids need extra support to function in group settings.

For many, summer camp can be a workable band-aid. There are summer care options for kids like M that we’ve tried: special needs camps (pricey), inclusion programs (waitlists), babysitters (sporadic). Families can cobble together some solutions, but even that cobbling together takes financial resources, stable jobs and time. And the “invisible labor” of planning and organizing is disproportionately borne by women, often to the detriment of our careers and wages, and peace of mind.

We need the federal infrastructure for a child care system that operates year round and is modeled on the K-12 education system. Doing so brings other positive benefits: stable and better salaries for the teachers, reliable and safe options for parents, and a better educational experience for the child. Moving away from a piecemeal, individualized approach can also provide more for kids in those long summer months, including kids like M., who need the additional assistance that regular camp models cannot always provide. States like New Mexico and Vermont are making significant headway in creating the necessary child care infrastructure – when child care switches from a “nice to have” to a “right to have” then more space will be made for the kids who are otherwise left out.

Until then, some of us are left scrambling each summer for the options that work best for our kid and family, feeling mentally and financially depleted coming up with a workable option – if we can find one. And then we put our heads down and barrel through three long months only to do it all again one year later.