Dana Milbank
Opinion writer June 1, 2012

My daughter is only 8 but, being a child in Washington, she has already felt the cruel sting of rejection.

“At this time, we have acceptances out for all spaces available in both sessions of Creative Campers,” said the letter from the Holton-Arms School’s summer camp. The day camp offered to put my daughter on the waiting list for the session beginning July 16.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

It was Jan. 27 — and already too late for summer camp.

This called for handling the matter in a uniquely Washington way: paying to play. The Smithsonian’s camps, it turned out, would give a one-day head start to register for their camps if you “become a donor to the Smithsonian Associates at the Contributor level ($300 or higher).”

Eleven hundred dollars later, including $800 for the camp, and an hour waiting in the call queue the moment the registration period opened, my daughter was accepted for two weeks of camp. It was Feb. 8.

For the money and the trouble, my little camper will have some super-cool experiences: touring the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and the Natural History Museum, and making helicopters and plaster casts of fossils. And yet, the experience is another reminder to me of what’s wrong with this town.

In the coming weeks, summer camps everywhere will open their gates to lucky children who will enjoy lazy days with canteens, kayaks and calamine lotion. Yet here, even this last bastion of carefree play has fallen to hyper-competitiveness, one-upmanship and cash.

For me, summer camp meant eating ice cream with wooden spoons, playing pickup basketball on cracked asphalt, trying to peek through the cracks in the wall separating the boys’ changing room from the girls’, and passing the test so I could swim in the deep end.

But for my daughter and her cohorts, things have truly gone off the deep end.

Parents send their kids to “camp” to study Spanish, Chinese, science, math, geography, even “criminal trial advocacy.” Schools, local governments and nonprofits generate cash by feeding parents’ desire to give their kids a competitive edge — or by satisfying parents’ own competitive urge to enroll their kids in the coolest camp.

Hence, we have the “Hunger Games Camp” modeled after the teen novels, fencing camp, Lego camp, doll camp, bring-your-dog-to-camp camp, video-game camp, chess camp for 5-year-olds, fantasy gaming camp and Japanese drumming camp. Think summer camp isn’t rocket science? Guess again: There are various missile-building camps.

Maybe it’s for the better that children are learning robotics at summer camp instead of peeking through the changing-room wall. My daughter is certainly better educated than I was. But still: summer camp? Is there no value anymore on unstructured time in childhood?

The rest of the year, my daughter attends a demanding private school. Regardless of school, public or private, kids her age here are on traveling soccer teams, or started piano lessons at age 4, or get math drills at the dinner table.

I’d prefer to protect my daughter’s unstructured and even — gasp — unproductive time, but that risks her being left out, or left behind.

In this environment, we shouldn’t be surprised that parents of middle-schoolers pay $3,600 for three weeks in the Duke summer program or that parents of second-graders send them to writing workshops at the Johns Hopkins summer program. Preschoolers as young as 2 — too young to ingratiate themselves with the admissions staff at Duke or Johns Hopkins — can go to “camp” for French immersion.

The McLean School of Maryland actually calls its camp “SummerEdge” (featuring “Brain Camp” for the pre-K-to-grade-6 crowd) and promises campers its techniques will “increase their edge” over other kids. The Fairfax Collegiate summer program offers, among other things, public speaking and test prep, with “breaks” for soccer and basketball.

At a time of so much over-programming, I side with the anonymous contributor to the Web site dcurbanmom.com, a chat room for type-A parents, who ridiculed a parent who asked if there was a “jump rope day camp” in the area: “How about a hopscotch camp? This is a joke, right? Is nothing for children unstructured anymore?”

Apparently not. St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School camps, perhaps the area’s most exotic, offer, among many others, a Civil War camp, a fashion camp, a veterinary camp, a ghost-hunting camp, and the aforementioned fencing and Hunger Games camps.

The Hunger Games camp, all three sessions of which are sold out, offers marksmanship and laser tag. That’s fine, but it isn’t summer if the kids don’t get a chance to eat ice cream with wooden spoons.

danamilbank@washpost.com