Back to previous page


Post Most

It’s February in Washington — time for summer camp madness

By ,

The desperate call came on a Friday in late February. Snow still lay on the ground and more was forecast to come. But the parent was frantic. Was there still time to get her child into ... summer camp?

“I’m sorry,” came the reply from the Smithsonian summer camp customer service operator. “The camp is sold out.”

“But I’ve already told him,” the mother said of her child. “Can’t you just add a space? I just need one space.”

“We can put you on the waiting list,” the operator replied. “And call if there’s a cancellation.”

The parent paused. Then asked: “Can’t you take someone else out?”

When it finally dawned on her that her pleas were getting her nowhere, she let loose, according to a transcript read by Yolonda Nicely, Smithsonian director of customer service.

“My child’s summer is ruined,” the parent hissed. “I hope you’re happy with yourself!”

What the mother didn’t realize is that, for certain high-powered camps in this high-powered town of Type A overachievers, signing up at the end of February is late. Way too late.

Call it a particularly Washington kind of Potomac Summer Camp Fever in winter. “The whole thing alternatively cracks me up and stresses me out!” said Erin White, a working mother.

In the race to secure a coveted spot for their progeny, Washington area parents have been known to pitch tents overnight in wintry weather to claim their place in the first-come, first-serve camp lines that open the following morning. They’ve raced to post offices in the sleet the very day certain camp brochures arrive in the mail. They’ve set their phones on automatic redial on registration day or willingly stayed on hold for hours, pestered camp directors on Thanksgiving weekend, jammed servers and brought down entire computer systems knowing that certain camps get filled in the space of an hour. And, this being Washington, some even employed an old standard: name dropping.

“We’ve heard some crazy stories,” said Brigitte Blanchere, programming director at the Smithsonian. “ ‘My kid is coming from overseas and has to get in.’ Or, ‘Someone is already on their way from Texas.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I know someone in the White House.’ And we say, ‘That’s nice. This is Washington. We all know someone in the White House.’ ”

Kathi Cohen, director of the popular Art League School in Alexandria, said just like some Manhattanites go nuts about getting their unborn children into the right preschool, certain Washingtonians are a little gaga over getting their kids into the right summer camps. She calls it “competitive parenting.”

“We started enrolling February 7 for our summer programs for kids. But we already had some people who had pre-enrolled on the Internet so early that their credit cards had lapsed,” she said. “When some camps fill up, I’ve had some parents ask to remove other children to make room for theirs. They’ll say, ‘I don’t know why you don’t do that for me.’ It leaves you breathless.”

‘Only in Washington’

It is not as though there aren’t enough camps to go around in the area. The American Camp Association estimates that about 10 million American children attended some 12,000 accredited camps last year.

Enrollment has exploded 90 percent in the past two decades as more women entered the workforce and scrambled to find summer child care, and as increasingly competitive parents began to look for ways to enrich and expand their children’s horizons. There are more than 100 accredited camps in the greater Washington area and hundreds more that aren’t.

It’s just that certain camps have that special blend of “only in Washington” programs, proximity to home or work, community buzz and the cachet that comes with having limited space. And that’s what creates the chaotic winter camp rush.

Take the Smithsonian, for example. Where else can a child hang out all day in some of the most respected museums on earth learning about aerodynamics by building rockets, making videos or building dioramas of Roman soldiers in the Punic Wars for $428 a week?

The day that camp registration opened this year on Feb. 11, the number of parents calling in took down the entire Smithsonian phone system. And that was an hour after the horde of parents trying frantically to register online brought the venerable institution’s computer servers down. Fully one-quarter of the slots were already taken by people who had donated at least $300 to the institution and were allowed to register two days early.

Laurie Goldstein, whose daughter attends a three-week, $1,170 camp at Holton-Arms, logged on five minutes after registration opened earlier this month and was 144th in the virtual line. At 15 minutes in, her friend was 225th. “It went pretty quickly,” she said.

The winter summer camp rush is hardly an elite, private school phenomenon. Try getting into Winkler Botanical Preserve in Alexandria. With a mailing list of more than 1,200 families, camp-savvy parents know the only way to secure one of the 500 spots in the $350 a week camp is to mail the brochure application back in the very day it arrives in the mail.

“You literally have to chase the mailman back down,” said Laura Swanstrom Reece, a working mother who, by the end of January, had already registered and paid tuition for her two girls’ summer camps. “So this year, I didn’t even try. You can only do Winkler for one week, and most people need coverage for the entire summer.”

Or try to secure one of the 20-some spots in the D.C. Parks and Recreation’s Little Explorers camp for 3-year-olds, one of the few full-day programs in the area for that age group and one of the most affordable, at $100 a week for District residents. “It’s crazy,” said Parks and Recreation spokesman John Stokes. “Those camps fill up fast.” In February.

And at the Reston Children’s Center, parents wait overnight in line in early March to get one of the 80 spots per week in the popular — and, at $240 a week, affordable — 11-week summer camp.

“I don’t even want to tell them how early to line up anymore,” said summer program director Shanen Elliott. “It used to be you had to be here right at 6:30 a.m. with your paperwork when we opened to get a spot. Then it was 6 a.m. Last year, I know the line was already long by 3 a.m.”

Spreadsheets and schedules

Putting a summer camp schedule together is already hard work, many Washington area parents say, like fitting intricate puzzle pieces together. Especially if both parents work and the camps run from, say 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. or 10 am. to 2 p.m. Add to that the carpools, the coordinating with children’s friends and the stress of trying to pull it all together by the end of February and you’ve got perfect madness.

“I keep wondering, who are the people that plan these three-hour or half-day camps?” said Germaine Schaefer, an Alexandria working mother who spends most of January and February with a complicated spreadsheet planning summer camp logistics. “If you don’t have a mom or a nanny or a friend who stays at home or a flexible worklife, I don’t know how they think you’re supposed to manage it.”

That’s why some neighborhood and parent e-mail lists begin buzzing as early as December about summer plans.

Jennifer Cloud, a working mother of a 10-year-old in Montgomery County, began getting those panicked e-mails just after the holidays. “I’m thinking, ‘I can’t do that yet,’ ” she said. “I’m just trying to find time to take the Christmas tree down.”

Anne Zuk has spent three years as head of a “must get in” summer camp called Discovery Creek that costs parents between $480 and $1,050 a week, depending on the program. She has seen her computer system crash on the first day of January registration, and taken calls from nervous parents during her Thanksgiving break.

“But I did have a mom who called me last year in April,” Zuk said, “and asked, ‘So is my daughter going to be able to get a spot in camp, or did the Alpha Moms take them all?’”

Luckily, Zuk said, there was space left. One space.

© The Washington Post Company