How to Host Your Family’s Own Personal Summer Camp

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The summer of 2020 is approaching, and with it the waiting game on whether summer camps will open in your town. If you were expecting to send your kids off either every morning or for actual months on end, you might be panicking. But whether camp has already been canceled for your children, or if you’re concerned about sending them even if it’s open, keep in mind there may be something not-so-terrible about a summer spent at home.

Without camp, your kids can sleep late, and you need neither to schlep them around, nor pack their lunches. They’ll have some time to play, space out and even learn a few life skills.

“For parents who are working from home, this is a nightmare. A summer with no structured activity,” said Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of “How to Raise an Adult,” but “we know that curiosity and imagination blossom from boredom. They can build forts, stage plays, do dress-ups, dig up worms. Maybe this is an opportunity for children to reclaim some of the very best aspects of childhood that we’ve paved over with enrichment programs.”

Maybe it is.

Here’s a formula to keep in mind for your “Pandemic Home Camp”: one part free-range, one part screens and one part parental involvement. And there’s a single rule at this camp: If your kids are having fun, leave them alone (unless they’re eating compost or chasing each other with rusty tools).

Your children might be happy rereading “Calvin and Hobbes” or learning to crochet over Zoom with their grandma. Or they might want to watch movies, make Popsicles, do a hundred push-ups and learn to vacuum (go ahead and dream a little). It’s all good! Or, at least, it’s all fine.

Once you’ve gotten your mind around the fact of a summer at home, the rest is in the planning (or not planning). Here are some steps you and your school-age, neurotypical kids can take toward a successful, fun, educational (or at least a safe, contented, sanity-saving) summer. If you have tiny ones in the house or children with special needs, you’ll most likely need to adapt these ideas significantly:

Brainstorm. Ask your kids what they were most looking forward to about camp — then help them grieve their losses and figure out which parts you can recreate. Dodgeball and bunkmates? I’m sorry, sweetie. Lanyards, those little boxes of sweet cereal, and flashlight tag? You got it! Remind them they get to skip the parts they hate, like the bus and the shouty lifeguard. (Or the whole experience, if you send them to Lord of the Flies Camp!) Then, list their favorite things to do at home, especially activities the kids can do independently and without fighting.

Could you come up with an easy theme for each week or month? Think music or movies or nature or — if you have this kind of kid — school camp. (Relaxing is also a fine theme for camp.) If you’re blessed with an older kid who can be a younger kid’s “counselor,” discuss this arrangement, and its compensation, privately, so as not to rankle anybody.

Invest a little time upfront. Your kids will be more independent in the long run if you teach them some basic skills right now. Show them how to put on their own sunscreen, feed the pets, change batteries or a light bulb, cut safely with a sharp knife, mop up a spill, unload the dishwasher. That’s why they call it Chores Camp! (Kidding.) Praise them extravagantly for their efforts.

Structure the day — or don’t. A schedule written out on a white board might be reassuring to some kids and constraining for others. Lay out some basic expectations, if you prefer: that the kids will go outside at some point, make their own lunch, or be on screens no more than a certain amount of time (and that can be a big number right now). Some afternoon downtime with an audiobook and coloring supplies might be wise, too.

Offer a challenge — or don’t. Give your kids an idea or two to shape the day or week. These can be fun for them, helpful to you, or both. For example challenge them to make an arcade game from cardboard boxes, paint the garage, create a stop-motion animation from clay, make a fruit salad for dinner, hack a dull game like Candy Land to make it fun, organize all the books by color, make fancy hats for the dolls, check in with their grandparents over FaceTime, use up the old bananas, create a Rube Goldberg machine, open a salon and paint everybody’s toenails, learn your favorite Joni Mitchell song on the piano, roll all the pennies, make a fort, fix the broken lamp, etc.

Consider lunch a teachable moment. Show them how to make a sandwich, a quesadilla, a package of ramen — and then leave them to it. Pose an occasional ingredient-challenge contest, like on the show “Chopped”: “Each of you has to make a dish using that huge block of cheese and the old celery.” Then take a work break at lunchtime to judge and — Bonus! — be fed. Teach them to clean up too: load the dishwasher, put ingredients away, wipe the counters.

Make friends with screens. From massively multiplayer online games to video tutorials, TikTok and FaceTiming with friends and family, connectivity is a huge boon to the stuck-at-home kid. For active children, Wii fitness games and their ilk are lifesavers, and for sedentary ones, a daily feature-length film is a totally legit option. (If it makes you feel better, call it Film Camp.) But do set some screen limits, even if they’re long, especially for social media, because otherwise the kids will be on tablets all day and the opportunities of summer will pass them by.

Here are some recommended resources for online classes and activities:

  • Camp Wonderopolis. Theme-based educational content via the traditional online mix of videos and instructions (Free).

  • Creativebug. Over 100 prerecorded art and craft classes specifically for kids — and thousands more for all ages — covering media and projects from abstract painting to farm-animal finger puppets. (30-day free trial; fees afterward vary)

  • DIY for Kids. Creative projects and courses ranging from “Build Your Own Machine” and “Drawing Bootcamp” to “Strange Science” and “Host a Minecraft Video Show.” (Free 14-day trial; $15-$25 per month afterward)

  • Outschool. Multiday, live, small-group “camps” based on such excellently narrow themes as My Pretty Pony and Harry Potter potions. (Registration fees vary.)

  • Stomping Ground. This sleep-away camp with a “radical empathy” mission is, for now, offering live Zoom camp in themed 1-hour sessions. (Free)

  • Wide Open School. A vast collection of online learning resources curated by the editors of Common Sense Media. A proposed daily schedule might give shape to the hours. (Free)

Gather some supplies. Think: stuff your kids can do on their own. (If you have to stop working every time someone wants to thread a needle or boil fudge, you’re going to be frustrated.) Remember you’re saving money on actual camp, which might make this an acceptable time to invest in that Nintendo Switch or a giant set of LEGOs. But this is also a great moment to cultivate the value of scrappiness by making garbage art or finally using all that origami paper.

The items to consider come in a few select categories that you can also use to structure your day. Some of them may seem obvious, but in the sudden rush of bored kids looking for something to do, you’ll come to appreciate this list — much of which you may already have:

  • Books. Beyond the obvious, check your shelves for instructional, puzzle and coloring books. Cookbooks, coffee table books and audiobooks can be a hit with certain kids as well.

  • Creative supplies. Paper, tape (all varieties), new glue sticks, new pens and markers, pencils and a sharpener, watercolor paints, string and yarn, sewing materials, clay, Popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, stickers.

    Remember all those old office supplies: Post-its, staplers, paper clips, rubber bands, index cards, labels and graph paper. Hoard some cardboard boxes and tubes, corks, paper bags, catalogs and magazines.

    And you’ll want to have a dropcloth or plastic tablecloth for messy projects.

  • Open-ended toys: You have these already, don’t worry: building toys, figurines, dress-up, pretend play, dolls, train sets, little cars.

  • Games: Choose harmonious games over combative ones (hide Risk). Some of our all-time favorites: Chinese checkers, Qwixx, Sushi Go, Sleeping Queens, Yahtzee, a deck of cards.

    Sound investment games for older kids? Splendor, Azul, Wingspan, Ticket to Ride.

  • Indoor active play: Consider lowering the wreckage factor here: foam balls, an inflatable punching bag, juggling balls, an over-the-door basketball hoop, pull-up bar, balance board, floor mats or interlocking foam tiles, mini trampoline. Remember these items on rainy days.

  • Outdoor activities: Take an inventory of what you already have before you go crazy with the online shopping: balls, Frisbees, yard games (such as cornhole, badminton, croquet, tether ball), soap bubbles, a garden hose, water shooters, sidewalk chalk, bug catcher, magnifying glass, Swiss army knife (if your children won’t cut their hands off), etc.

  • Other stuff: Jigsaw puzzles, science supplies, kits of all kinds, a ukulele and a harmonica, a white board and markers.

Be all in or all out

If what you mostly need to be doing is work this summer, then tell your kids as much and enlist their help in making it happen. Set aside time to spend with them during the day, whether it’s lunch (which they can make for you), or an hour in the afternoon to play a game, take an online anime class, or attend any magic shows or concerts where your presence is requested (a roll of actual paper tickets is a wonderful thing to have on hand).

And if the kids want more of your presence than you can give, then “I wish I could spend more time with you” is a helpful thing to say.

Lay a blanket on the floor near where you’re working, in case someone is lonely or sad and needs to lie down near you with a book for a little while.

Keep a question box, so they can jot down their issues to rehash with you later: practicalities like, “Do we have food coloring?”; curiosities like “What’s the kind of bird that kind of looks like Robin Hood?”; and problems like “We had a fight about farts and why they smell.”

Pick an end time for the “camp day,” then help the kids clean up — not because it’s your job, but because it’s nice to help.

Maybe home camp will be a mess, in more ways than one: the cluttered house, the under-supervised activities, your abandoned ideas about how time should be spent. But it’s OK. The kids are learning important skills right now — like how to be flexible, creative and resilient. And so are we. It’s just one summer of many. And one day? It’s going to make a really great story.

Catherine Newman is the author of the kids’ craft book “Stitch Camp” and the instructional “How to Be a Person,” out this month.