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So, this is how it feels to sign up for summer camp in Washington

Thousands of parents in D.C. and its suburbs are in the middle of that high-stress scramble. This year, I joined them.

Vargas's sons take a break from playing. (Theresa Vargas/The Washington Post)
5 min

Summer camp was not part of my childhood. We didn’t pack lunches and head for hikes or kayak rides. We didn’t play tug-of-war or mold cups from clay.

What I knew about camp as a child I learned from TV shows and movies — and I watched plenty of those over summer breaks. Screens and my older siblings were my babysitters.

And yet, I turned out okay. My mind didn’t dissolve into mush. My future wasn’t derailed.

I remind myself of all this on a recent afternoon, as I sit at my computer, waiting for the clock to hit noon.

That was when registration was scheduled to open for summer camps in the Washington suburb where my husband and I live with our two elementary school-age sons.

For Mother’s Day, a remembrance of my almost daughter.

Winter had just ended, and I was already planning for the summer. That was not by choice. That’s the way of the Washington summer camp scramble.

In a high-stress region, signing up children for camp has long been one of the most stressful activities for parents, and right now, thousands are in the middle of that process. They are reading through camp options, making lists, writing down codes and calculating costs. Is $250 a week for a camp worth being able to work uninterrupted? What if that camp cost $600 and you have two kids? Wait, how many weeks are in the summer?

This year, D.C. put in place changes to make the registration process easier and fairer for families. In an article about the changes, my colleague Joe Heim wrote: “In previous years, registering meant going online at a certain day and time and hoping that your application landed in the queue ahead of everyone else’s. Most of the time it didn’t. Last year, according to the DPR, more than 600 people applied for 40 spots at one of the D.C. camps. That made for a lot of unhappy campers.”

The new process gives families from March 13 to April 5 to register camp preferences for their children. The city will then choose campers through a lottery system that gives all registrants an equal chance of being selected.

The changes offer families a different reason to stress — uncertainty — since registering a child does not guarantee them a slot. But the city should be commended for trying to find a way to give everyone, regardless of their circumstances and keyboard clicking abilities, a chance to enroll.

In Arlington County, where my family lives, the camp registration process also changed this year. Separate registration days were designated for camps run by the county and partner organizations, and parents were warned that once they logged on, they would automatically enter a virtual waiting room where they would receive a random place in line.

The changes follow years of registration mayhem. To give you a sense of the past chaos, this was the headline that ran on the local news site ArlNow last year: “Arlington’s summer camp registration system melts down again, despite changes.”

The article described parents encountering error messages and frustrating spinning wheels on their screens. Parents told of spending more than an hour trying to complete a task that should have taken minutes and, after getting wait-listed for camps, questioned what they were going to do for child care.

Summer camp may seem a luxury. I used to think that when I first moved to the Washington region. After all, growing up in Texas, the pool I spent my summers in was plastic and filled with water that came from a backyard hose. But as a parent who has made a life in this region and doesn’t have relatives nearby to help watch my children, I now understand that for many local families, it provides critical child care. It caters to children, but it serves parents.

A dying fish, a beloved dog and a parenting lesson, of sorts

For years, I purposely avoided jumping into that camp registration mess. Then last year, I found myself needing to enroll my children for child-care purposes. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that until more than a month after most people had registered. All that remained were a few slots in the least desirable camps.

My sons went without complaint, and for the most part, they had a decent time. But this year, I promised them that I would try to find camps that were more in line with their interests.

On a weekend day, we went through a catalogue of camp options together. Did they want to try fencing? Did they want to play tennis?

“They have a camp where you can go fishing,” I told them.

“Would we have to kill the fish?” my younger son asked. I knew he wanted the answer to be no.

“Would we get to eat the fish?” my older son asked. I knew he wanted the answer to be yes.

Together, we came up with a list of our top camps and our acceptable backups. After that, it was up to me to log in at the right time and hope for a decent spot in line.

On the day of registration, I sat in front of my laptop and watched the clock. As soon as the time hit noon, I clicked enter. Then I waited.

On my screen appeared a note saying I was in a virtual waiting room. The number of people in front of me: 633.

In the end, my sons didn’t get into the camp they most wanted, but I was able to get them into a few I think they’ll enjoy. I also secured needed child care and something else — a new appreciation for parents who step into that stressful scramble every year.