Want all the benefits of camp—like having your kids entertained and out of your hair—without the wallet—draining cost? Get a few parents together and organize your own.
When I first started looking into morning day camps as a way to break up the summer for my daughter, I nearly gagged at the cost. So my friend Alicia and I came up with a better idea: We'd recruit other parents and create our own. Our plan was for each parent to host for one day. Then our kids would spend the rest of the week rotating to the other parents' homes. The best part? It would be practically free.
Three years and six "Mom Camps" later, my daughter still loves our creation better than any of the traditional camps she's attended. At sessions hosted by fellow moms (and one dad!), she got a tour of a real fire truck, went on a backyard insect hunt and learned about different countries on a pretend trip around the world. The camp has helped build community and saved us hundreds of dollars. What's more, planning each year's version has become a highlight of my summers, allowing me to tap my creativity in ways I haven't since my own long-ago days at camp. Sound fun? Here's how to do it.
1. Decide on a structure.
The more campers you recruit, the more free days you'll have, but you also need to consider how many kids you can handle. So take a tip from the experts: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a ratio of one adult to no more than ten 6- to 8-year-olds.
Our camp ran for a week, with five parents taking one day each. You could also do it, say, every Monday for five weeks. Or eight working parents could agree to host for a week each in the summer, creating a camp that's two months long. That's more ambitious, but think of savings on childcare!
2. Choose the right campers—and parents
Figuring that the ideal camp would be made up of kids close in age who already knew each other, Alicia and I started by asking neighborhood kids. It worked for us, but there are other options: A friend of mine created a wonderful camp with parents from her daughter's kindergarten class.
One thing we didn't consider (Mistake #1) was the dependability of the parent. You don't want one of those laissez-faire types who's not going to take the responsibility seriously. One year we had a parent who sent her child to camp all four days and then bailed on her day to host. Obviously, we didn't invite her back the next year.
On the other hand, we learned not to assume working parents wouldn't be interested. Plenty of them turned out to be willing to take a day or a week off in exchange for free childcare the other days.
3. Set ground rules
This tip comes from hard experience: We didn't really establish any that first year, except that every parent needed to have a theme with related activities (Mistake #2). As far as I know, no one plopped the kids in front of the TV or let them play with matches. But Alicia's daughter got dozens of bug bites one day because we never talked about who was responsible for applying bug spray and sunscreen. Now we remind parents to put it on their kids before they come. It's also a good idea to talk through what will happen if the host has to cancel for some reason. We now make her reschedule on a day that works for everyone. Another important topic: discipline. We decided on time-outs and a phone call to the parent, though luckily that's never been an issue. (It all goes back to choosing the right campers, ones who get along and mostly know to follow the rules.)
Parents should write down important information, such as how to be reached in an emergency and their kids' allergies. (We had everything on one sheet of paper.) At our camp, the children bring their own lunches, but the host provides a snack. It's actually kind of fun coming up with one that goes with the theme. In fire-safety camp, for instance, my campers sprayed whipped cream all over yellow, orange and red Jell-O cubes. (Get it? They were putting out the fire!)
4. Pick a Theme
The hardest part for me that first year was thinking of a theme. A week before camp, when I was still drawing a blank, Alicia mentioned that her sister had once done a pirate theme. So I went right out and spent $100 at a crafts store on supplies, including costumes, wooden treasure chests the kids could paint and favor bags for each camper (Mistake #3).
Now I shop at the dollar store and borrow supplies—plus get great theme ideas—from my kids' teachers. I've also figured out that this is a camp, not a birthday party, so you don't need things like goody bags and costumes. I typically spend about $30 on supplies for my host day, including the snack.
You can get theme and activity ideas from practically anywhere, including dozens of teacher websites like Teacherplanet.com, Lessonplanspage.com or Atozkidsstuff.com. Or think about upcoming holidays. I did a patriotic theme near the Fourth of July one year: We had a parade, sang "Yankee Doodle" and made gorgeous fireworks by dipping plastic kitchen scrubbers in gold and silver paint and then stamping them on black paper.
One of my favorite themes of all time was Alicia's Father's Day camp. The kids filled out a questionnaire about their fathers, made cards and mixed up a batch of sweet and salty nuts with a note that said "I'm nuts about you, Dad!"
5. Create a schedule
After you've picked a theme and figured out your activities, create a timeline for the day. I started my pirate camp reading pirate books aloud. Afterward, the kids went off into the dining room to paint their treasure chests, an activity I had estimated would take 20 minutes (Mistake #4). Imagine my surprise when two of them finished in, like, two minutes! Next thing I knew, they were tearing toys off the shelves and chasing each other. The lesson? Kids do things at different speeds, so always have some trusty coloring sheets on hand or another quiet activity set up in another room. It's also a good idea to put away as many toys as possible, to help keep the kids focused and your house from getting trashed.
6. Ditch the schedule
The rest of the morning went fairly smoothly. We went on a scavenger hunt (an activity that works with almost any theme), pretended to walk the plank and had sword fights with supermarket baguettes. When the children got really into something, I tried to go with it, even if it meant skipping something else. Still, about 45 minutes before the kids were scheduled to be picked up, I noticed they were having trouble paying attention. That's when it dawned on me. Duh, I hadn't scheduled any free play (Mistake #5). So I put aside my itinerary, opened the back door and let them run free.
7. Get that pedicure
As I watched the kids cavort outside, I daydreamed about what I would do for the rest of the week while other parents took their turns at running the camp. Hit the nail salon? Go to lunch? Maybe even lie by the pool? (Ahhh?) No matter how I spent my newfound free time, I knew my daughter would be in good hands and having terrific fun with friends. And lucky for me, I would be saving a bundle, too.