STORIES NEEDED: Has Your Kid’s Camp Become Less Free-Range? Or Even Nutty?

Hi Folks! I’m writing a column inspired by the Maryland law that was about to be enacted that would have prohibited counselors from applying sunblock to kids. The state was, of course, afraid of perverts. But when parents heard about the measure, THEY were afraid of sunburn. So the law did not go into effect (but parents still have to sign a waiver saying they agree to counselor-kid sunscreen application).

Anyway, that got me to thinking about other ways camps have changed and even contorted, in response to parental fears, lawsuit fears, and just fears in general. If you have any examples, I’d love to hear ’em. Especially after just finding the FIVE PAGE health form I have to fill out for my son to go to Boy Scout camp for a WEEK. I know, I know — some kids have allergies to surprising things, but really: I have to check off whether the camp is allowed to give him calamine lotion for an itch or Bactine for a scratch? Yes indeed I do!

And so: I”d like to hear from parents, camp counselors, camp owners and anyone else with any camp connection. As you know, I love safety, but I also love sanity and a soupcon of summer freedom. Hope yours is a happy one! — L

Kids waiting to go to camp in the days before parents had to authorize the use of sunscreen. In fact, the days before sunscreen, period.

How to Start a Neighborhood Camp with Kids as Counselors!

Hi Readers! This sounds so fun and do-able. Also sounds like it can really change a neighborhood and all the childhoods in it! A huge thanks to Diana and Jennifer for alerting us to their camp and providing all the info  — right down to waivers, flyers and a time sked — of how to get it off the ground.  Free! If you decide to try starting a camp in your neighborhood, please let us know how it goes! — L.
Dear Free-Range Kids: We thought you’d like an update on our neighborhood summer camp.  As you wrote about in your blog last year, we’re two moms from Palo Alto, CA who have created an old-school, low-key summer camp for our neighborhood.  Last year 43 kids attended.  It was so successful that this summer almost EVERY family with kids attended–a total of 72 kids!  We’ve attached a link to a local article about our camp – we think you’ll like the title!
The details for the camp include:

  • Five mornings for the first week of summer
  • Older kids serve as counselors and design the activities
  • A modest camp tuition gets divided up between the counselors
  • Younger kids (age 4 – 4th grade) are ‘campers’
  • Each day a different family or two adjacent neighbors ‘host’ (i.e., provide space and some adult supervision)
  • Different activities each day — crafts, games, snacks and free play (e.g., water balloons, obstacle courses, lawn bowling, jump rope, sidewalk chalk)
  • Great memories with neighborhood friends and the comfort level to inspire impromptu playdates the rest of the summer
For some neighborhoods, a camp like ours should be easy to implement.  We have a workplan and templates that we are happy to share.  For others, a full-fledged camp would not be practical. The good news is: it can be modified to one weekend day, or one “day off” for the neighborhood.  It could motivate kids to spend time outdoors playing with friends after dinner, for example.
We have several attorneys on our street who recommended we issue a basic waiver.  Every family signs it for their kids to participate and it protects everyone in the neighborhood.  We wish we could avoid it, but see it as a practical reality that everyone seems to understand.
The rest of the summer, some kids are home, but most go to organized camps for part of the day. Neighborhood play seems to resume mid-afternoon.
Last year, the street felt like a ghost town the week after camp.  We suspect the families on our street were so used to scheduling their kids for camps and activities that it didn’t occur to them to keep them home and just play in the neighborhood.  We toyed around with making it a two week commitment this year:  one week of camp and the other of NOTHING.  What would the kids do?  Would we all adjust to a non-scheduled lifestyle?
We haven’t done this as we feel it would be a lot to ask of households with two working parents who really rely on camps for childcare.  But we’re hopeful this summer, because of the number of kids that participated in our camp, the continued increase in comfort-level between the neighbors that lasted throughout the school year, and the enthusiasm from this year’s camp, that this summer will include a lot more neighborhood play.  We’re already seeing it with the four-square courts sprayed on the street!
Thanks for all your inspiration.  We’re having a blast! –Diana Nemet and Jennifer Antonow

Camp Ride-a-Bus

Hi Reeders! Just read about a new camp in Austin, Texas. It’s for teens who want to get around the city by public bus.

That’s the whole camp. Teens. Getting around the city. By bus. They consult a map, pay their fare and go someplace. According to TV station KXAN, a mom named Sheila Gordy came up with the idea for what she calls “Urban Explorer” camp when her 12-year-old wanted to start discovering the city on his own. KXAN quotes Gordy as saying, “When you have been catered to for 13 or 14 years and all of a sudden you yourself can get somewhere and you don’t have to ask, that’s really empowering.”

It sure is. It might be even MORE empowering if your parents weren’t paying $310 a week to have you do it with the help of this camp. But in truth, I’m probably just jealous that I didn’t come up with the idea first. After all, I am vaguely famous for letting my younger son, Izzy, take the New York City subway by himself at age 9. If only I’d come up with “Izzy Camp” (or “Camp Izzy Does It”? “Izzy for Real”? “It’s Izzy To Get Around NYC Adventures”?), he could have been raking in $310 a week, per kid, for a couple of years now. He’d take their money, hand out maps and have his little posse head anywhere they’d like. Coney Island. Central Park. The candy store.

Of course, once kids figured out they could do this on their own — most of us parents did, after all — they could save $310 a week to spend on Kit Kats, or college. And that’s why I’m of two minds about this new idea.

On the one hand, it’s crazy. Why pay money for your kids to do what any able-bodied Ameri-kid could and probably should do upon turning 10, which is to use public transportation? Even if they got lost, all they’d need are the same old instructions our parents gave us: Ask for help! You can always talk to a stranger, you just can’t go off with some stranger who approaches YOU.
No adult needs your help finding his puppy, no adult should ask you to get in his car. It’s that straightforward. And seeing as so many kids have cellphones, Mom and Dad are never really out of touch anyway. If kids need help (and even when they don’t), they call. My God, do they ever call. So who needs camp?

On the other hand, maybe this is exactly what they need. The parents, I mean. After all, we have spent about a generation convincing them that their children are in peril if they do ANYTHING on their own. That’s why only about 1 in 10 kids walk to school anymore. That’s why they don’t make their own play dates or meet up at the park unless it’s for a scheduled supervised game.

If this camp can convince parents that their kids are capable of taking care of themselves on an outing, well, it is worth a fortune, because it will be giving the kids — and the parents — an invaluable gift: the gift of a child’s self-reliance.

Once parents see that their kids are not mewling babies surrounded by miscreants, maybe they’ll let the raft down the Mississippi — or at least get themselves to the mall.

Best not to send them with $310.

All aboard?

Oh Thank You, I Could Never Have Figured This Out on My Own

Hi Readers — I just found this website: How to Write Letters to Camp. Apparently all you have to do is master five simple steps! The website features three different greetings you might consider to address your child: “Dear Michael.” “Hi Mikey!” “Hey Kiddo!”

Phew! I had no idea how to start a letter to my own kid! Now I do!

Here’s a sample letter the site gives:  “Yesterday the weather was sunny in the 80s.  Dad and I woke up at 7 and walked the dog.  Dad went off to work and got home at about 7.  Your grandparents came over (they look great and say hello by the way) and we all went to that new Italian restaurant on Main Street.  We enjoyed the shrimp scampi…”

We need this kind of instruction because otherwise…what?  We might accidentally write an INTERESTING letter?  Or is the problem that parents can’t possibly think of anything to say to their kids? We need someone TELLING us what is APPROPRIATE to say in a letter, and reminding us that we better do it RIGHT? God forbid, we write a less than supportive, chatty, funny DAILY note, and our kid never recovers from the shock and disappointment of a sub-par letter?

I know that this is an upbeat site just trying to spread a little cheer and I really don’t want to dump on it. The guy running it sounds delightful. But the fact that there are pages and pages of instructions on what to INCLUDE in a letter — jokes! questions! encouragement! — and how to FRAME a family anecdote and how to LET our kids KNOW WE CARE is one of the things that drives me crazy about our society today: The idea we need EXPERT ADVICE on simply being parents. The idea that there is a right way and a wrong way to “relate” to our kids. The idea that even the simplest of daily activities is now a major challenge that we shouldn’t attempt before consulting a reference site, and that once we’ve studied up, we must  work on perfecting the activity, lest we fall short and “cheat” our kids out of a teachable, incalculably valuable moment. (And don’t get me started on the fact that the blog also suggests we can add an “SAT word of the day.” No — do NOT get me started.)

Somehow, we have taken every aspect of parenting and pulled it apart into tiny sub-parenting particles to examine and refine and fret about. When, really folks: It’s a letter to camp. You get out a sheet of paper, you say hi, and you drop it in the mail. (You remember mail, right?) You can do it without an advanced degree. You can do it without inserting the best possible joke or story. You can even do it without this — an actual “fill in the blank” template for parents to write to kids, including my favorite line: “Whatever you did, we’re very, very proud of you for trying!”

Very VERY proud. Whatever gosh darn thing you did, we are bursting with parental pride.

But you know what, parents? I believe in YOU, too. Can you write a letter to your child at camp? Hey, Parent-o, yes you can! And I’m so very, very proud of you!  — L.

And they're off to camp! But do you know how to write them a letter?

Needed: Your Camp Stories!

Hi Readers! I’m going to be giving a speech next week at the Tri-State Camp Conference — country’s biggest convention for camp owners — and I’d love to include some stories about how camp helps kids come into their own. I didn’t go to overnight camp but my husband did and he said it was THERE that he got to become a “grown up.” (Well, if by “grown up” we mean young man who could admit he was interested in girls.) It took him about three years to catch up with his summer persona in the real world.

Spending a chunk of time away from one’s parents, however loving, does seem to present a great opportunity to become independent (and not just learn how to short sheet a bunk bed). Also, the summer is the time to get in touch with nature, and learn some new skills. So if you have any stories (that you can share) about camp and growing up, do tell!

Thanks and I will now let Red Rover come over. — Lenore

Let's hear it for kids, bunks, free time & summer.

How Do You Get Kids Back Outside, Playing? One Cool Idea

Hi Readers! Here’s a story from Palo Alto Online about some neighbors who created their own “camp.” It’s run by older kids for younger kids (with parental supervision), it’s very casual, and it’s just a great way for everyone in the nabe to get to know each other, and also get used to playing outside, with each other.

It’s sort of like re-introducing a wounded bird back into the wild: A slightly artificial program by which kids are introduced back into the world of childhood. Hooray for the moms who started this and hooray for the group that inspired them, Playborhood. Its founder, Mike Lanza, also started a “family room” on his front lawn. Here’s to community! L

Iris Way, [is] a Palo Alto neighborhood located off of Embarcadero Road. It has everything a suburban family could possibly want — beautiful houses, giant trees, quiet streets and plenty of sun. Now residents have one more thing to cross off their checklists: Camp Iris Way.

Diana Nemet and Jennifer Antonow founded Camp Iris Way, which runs this week from 9 a.m. to noon, so neighborhood kids could play games, do arts and crafts and meet the other children on the block. The camp is for kids ages 4-15 and is limited to those living on Iris and one neighboring street.

Nemet and Antonow decided that they wanted to encourage the kids in their neighborhood to go outside and play after the pair of mothers read blogs on, a Menlo Park-based website.

“We decided to do it the first week of summer so that the kids could to get to know each other more and can play together for the whole summer,” Antonow said.

The two sent out e-mails and printed fliers to get other neighborhood parents involved. While Nemet and Antonow originally thought they would only attract enough kids to fill a back yard, the camp directors ended up with 44 of the approximately 60 kids living in the neighborhood. With so many parents wanting their children to participate, Nemet and Antonow had to call the City of Palo Alto to get permission to have part of the street blocked off.

“The idea was for kids to open their front door and come outside to play,” Nemet said. “We never thought it would be this big. It’s been wonderful to see how much they’re already bonding.”

The older kids are counselors and the fifth- and sixth-graders are counselors in training. The camp is broken up into four teams to make things more manageable. Each team has two counselors who run the activities for the day.

“I’m moving into this neighborhood over the summer so it’s a cool way to meet everyone,” said 14-year-old counselor Rachel Wood. “Most of the kids have seen each other in the neighborhood but didn’t know them. They became friends really fast.”

Best of all:

The neighborhood kids have already started playing together in their free time.

“Yesterday after camp my doorbell wouldn’t stop ringing,” Nemet said. “The kids from camp kept coming over asking my kids to come out and play. As far as I’m concerned, mission accomplished.”

As far as I’m concerned, too. If any of you are doing something like this — or are inspired to undertake a similar project NOW — please let us all know! We want to hear! — Lenore

Let Counselors Hug Campers!

Hi Folks — Here’s my ParentDish column on the sexualization of hugging. Ugh!!

Help This Mom Figure Out a Free-Range Summer for Her Kids

Hi Readers — Here’s a letter I got today. Let’s give her some good advice. Since I get to go first, I ‘ll say the obvious: If you can afford it, send your kids to some kind of not-too-programmed camp. Other suggestions?

Hey Free-Range Kids:  I truly, profoundly want my older daughter to be more Free-Range.  She wants more freedom.  Advice on how I get there is welcome.

My 13 and 11 year old girls are on summer vacation, my spouse and I both work.  The oldest is in open rebellion because, despite my claims that I want her to be more independent, I  won’t fire the babysitter.

Besides not being comfortable with them being home alone for that long a time with no adult less than an hour’s drive away, my oldest has admitted that the real problem with having this particular sitter is that she limits TV and computer time, buys only healthy foods when they are out, takes them to parks to play and lakes to boat  — in other words, she is destroying their summer by depriving her of the God-given right to be a couch potato everyday for 10 weeks.

I do believe summer should be, in part, a time to relax and be lazy.  I do believe a normal 13-year-old should not need a sitter.  But I can’t bear the thought of my kid sitting home alone and getting fat in front of her computer screen.  She’s already too heavy, according to her pediatrician, and I don’t like the trend.

The younger daughter thinks this 20-year-old sitter, btw, is Mary Poppins, and delights in her to no end.  Blatant and unfair favoritism, claims my moody eldest, further proof of the injustice inherent in my system.

Advice on how to get this kid to the point where she is sitting, instead of being sat, would be terrific. — Fed Up Mom

Okay, Readers. Go for it! – L.

Outrage of the Week: “Marshmallow Safety Tips”

Gotta thank Amy Bronee, host of the show Real Parenting on C-FAX in Canada for alerting me to this story in the National Post:

Minding your marshmallows

Katherine Dedyna, Canwest News Service  Published: Friday, July 24, 2009

There’s no such thing as being too careful when it comes to kids and camping – even for hyper-vigilant parents. But peril can take unexpected forms – including the seemingly innocuous marshmallow, if improperly handled.

For maximum health and safety, one B.C. doctor offers his wish-list of marshmallow-roasting techniques for 21st-century campfire kids:

1. Apply hand sanitizer before selecting marshmallow.

2. Sterilize the roasting twig by thrusting it in fire.

3. Remove carbon from the twig with a clean tissue.

4. Put a clean marshmallow on the clean twig with the clean hands and roast away.

“And don’t eat too many because one, they’re pure sugar, and two, all of us have burned our mouths on marshmallows,” says Dr. Richard Stanwick, chief medical officer of health for the Vancouver Island Health Authority.

“If there’s a flame coming out of it, it’s probably too hot.”

And I suppose if you apply the flaming marshmallow directly to your hair, that’s not a good idea either? How about the stick? Should one poke it in one’s eye? We do hope to see some more safety tips soon.

The article goes on to discuss a revolutionary device available from . It’s a stick.

It’s actually more like a paddle until the very end, where it gets pointy, and it’s long enough to keep your kid over 3 feet away from the fire. What’s more, according to the website, this amazing breakthrough, “makes it easy to roast marshmallows.”

At last! ‘Cause I’d been taking classes for years and just never quite got the hang of it.  And to think the stick is just $25.  Get ’em while they’re hot!

(And then wait for them to cool down, of course. Kids: Please wait till your marshmallow has solidified into a tepid mound before applying tongue. )  — Lenore

Free-Range Kids Outrage of the Week: 10-year-old Forbidden to Cross Parking Lot

Hi Free-Rangers:
Here’s a note from a mom who just wants her son to NOT be treated like a baby or invalid. But…that’s against camp rules. Voila:

My 10 year old is going to an art camp being held at the museum. Each child is suposed to be dropped off and picked up, complete with sign in/out sheets, by a person with the appropriate identification card issued by the camp. No card, no pickup. And if you’re late, they fine you.

I have no problem with this if it makes someone comfortable or if they have young children…however, my boy is not younger and I am fine with him leaving after his last class and walking across the very small parking lot to wait for me at the library where I may or may not be late depending on work. [Italics mine — Lenore]

I sent a letter stating that he had permission to leave unescorted, as per their instructions. Would you believe they have charged some intern to walk him across the parking lot?! The point of my letter was that my boy was fine, I was fine, and that he didn’t  need to be a bother to anyone there. The library and museum area are about as safe as you can get around here: Plenty of people, lots of foot traffic, very small parking lot so not a lot of vehicle traffic. The grocery store parking lot is twice as big and he’s been returning the carts for years!

First day, I ask the intern why he’s with my son and he said he just wanted him to make it safely to the library. I explained that wasn’t necessary and thanked him. The next day, my son slipped out without him, met me right smack out front and then asked if he could meet me at the library. I decide to move my car to a shadier spot and find my son on the library steps with the intern who’s followed him. Geesh people. He’s TEN!

In the non Free-Range world, alas, ten is the new two.  — Lenore