Debate camp. Filmmaking camp. Computer coding camp. There is no shortage of variety when it comes to summer camp offerings in the Washington region.
Does your son love dinosaurs? How would he like to spend a week digging for bones with a paleontologist? Does your daughter want to run for student council? How about a girls-in-politics camp that could also prime her to run for office one day?
In the high-achieving culture of Washington, parents are always eager to give their children an edge and help them develop new interests or go deeper on something they learned at school. This drive has fueled a proliferation of specialized camps that are upending the notion that summer camp is about arts and crafts and learning to swim.
“Just plain fun-in-the sun is not necessarily enough anymore,” said Lisa Friedlander, chief executive of Activity Rocket, an online service that helps parents pick and choose from among hundreds of area camps. “Parents want to take full advantage of this time. There’s always this push: What can I expose my child to?”
As special-interest camps proliferate, going to camp often means attending multiple camps for multiple interests. As a result, parents spend the summer months turning their schedules upside down, changing commutes every week, and setting their alarm clocks back so their children can pick organic vegetables on a working farm one week and learn to row crew on the Potomac at dawn the next. And they are paying a premium, with rates between $200 and $600 a week.
“I had to get really creative this year, because my 13-year-old daughter decided she wants to be Tina Fey,” said Dana Nugent, a mother in Northwest Washington who is juggling a chaotic schedule with three children in different camps this summer.
For her budding actress and comedian, she found a camp at Studio Theatre for part of the summer and then enrolled her for two weeks of camp at Second City in Chicago, where her daughter can stay with a relative while she learns at the improvisational theater troupe that helped launch Fey to stardom.
To make it easier for working parents, some large camps offer different specialized programs at a single location, and offer bus service and before- and aftercare, though such benefits add to the cost.
Teresa Rubio, a pharmacist in Olney, Md., mapped out the summer on a spreadsheet for her two sons, detailing which son is in which camp which week, what time they start and end, and how much they cost.
Some weeks they are at the same camp, some weeks they are not. One boy is enrolled in soccer camps, the other loves swimming. They are also going to camps specializing in science and robotics.
This year, to Rubio’s chagrin, she had to add an extra column on her chart when the Montgomery County School Board decided to push back the start of school by a week.
She worked to keep everything within a budget of $5,000 for the summer.
“It’s easy to get carried away with the money,” she said.
The price tag that goes along with camp and other summer enrichment opportunities is a root cause of the academic achievement gap that separates children from rich and poor families, researchers say. Some parents can afford to pay for camps that offer memorable learning opportunities for their children.
For those who can’t, summer is often a time when children lose ground academically and socially, said Matthew Boulay, interim chief executive for the Baltimore-based National School Learning Association.
“Summer is the most unequal time in America,” he said. “All the resources we devote to helping our most vulnerable students and children largely stop during the summer months.”
Many nonprofit groups work to fill the void for low-income families, and more public schools in the District are moving toward longer school years as a solution.
County and city governments in the region also provide summer camps at far lower costs.
The Department of Parks and Recreation has as many as 4,500 children enrolled in camps this summer. One-third of their camps serve 3- to 5-year-olds, a newer and fast-growing group of campers in the District since the city has moved to universal preschool over the past decade.
Most of the city’s camps cost $55 a week, and less for children from low-income families. With that price tag, demand is huge. Many camps fill up minutes after registration opens on the agency’s website in February.
By the time Jessica Raven logged on that day, there were no camps available near her home in Bloomingdale.
Still, she was able to reserve a space for her 3-year-old son in the “Little Explorers” camp at the Brentwood Recreation Center in Northeast for four weeks early in the summer, and, later in the summer, at a community center in Anacostia for two weeks.
Only problem: The city dweller does not have a car, so she is commuting by Metro and bus, and walking more than a mile to get there and back each day with her toddler.
“When I Googled it, I thought it would take 40 minutes to get there. The first day it was an hour and a half, but I’m getting used to it,” she said.
Still, Raven, who works at a nonprofit, said the commute is worth the cost savings. She likes that her son is having a classic summer camp experience.
“They go to the pool and read stories and sing songs. My son loves it.”