Summer officially stars in June, but now is the time to get your kids' summer camp plans on the books.

By Leigh-Ann Jackson
Photo by Getty Images

Life with kids means mastering the art of time-management — scheduling a never ending blitz of doctor’s visits, birthday parties, recitals, practices, and tournaments. The craftiest and most capable among us can get the kids to the field, the piano bench, or the orthodontist’s chair on time.

But it takes a bona fide schedule samurai to do all that and plan ahead for summer camp.

When does camp-registration begin?

Many of the most coveted camps open registration as early as February, then fill up at lightning speed. Yes, right smack dab in the middle of the school year — with all its essays, quizzes and field trips — there’s the gauntlet of applying for summer camp. This means you have to not only be in sync with the everyday mania crowding your kid’s calendar, you also have to whip out your crystal ball and foresee what they’ll want to be doing in five months’ time!

Your head is still hazy from cold and flu season, but you’ve got to put down the tissues long enough to fill out forms for midsummer water sports. You’ve barely finished booking your spring break plans, and the deadline for science camp is already breathing down your neck.

My childhood summers

Once upon a time — way, way back in the ‘80s — I spent my summers either splashing in a pool at the Y or languishing in a city-run rec room, weaving lanyard keychains and friendship bracelets. If I was “lucky,” I’d get to “enjoy” a sweltering school bus ride to go visit a bunch of zoo animals that were just as vexed by the heat and mosquitos as I was. And when day camp wasn’t in session, I’d sit in my living room being babysat by The Monkees and The Beverly Hillbillies, anxiously listening out for the approach of the ice cream truck.

So many camp options

These days, the pressure is on to strive for flashier summer experiences, especially in my SoCal neck of the woods. It seems as though your child’s very livelihood hinges on whether or not they get to take a one-week session of Intro to Cartooning course or a culinary arts clinic. In summers past, my daughter has had the luxury of diving into improv comedy, Shakespearean theater, swimming and coding.

Parents can choose from fencing and photography, tents or college campuses. There’s half-day, all-day and sleepaway. Maybe they’re booked for one paltry week, or perhaps you kiss them goodbye for a month. And the sky-high price tags attached to many of these options leave me longing for those ‘80s days of “reruns & chill.”

The camp-registration anxiety spans the country

Melissa Miller, an Angeleno with three kids, is fed up with doing the summer camp shuffle, and cost has a lot to do with that. She joked that some of them “need me to put down an $800 deposit and a lock of my hair.”

“For how much all these camps cost, you want the kid to come out 100-times smarter or happier, you know?”

I started to wonder if folks outside our L.A. bubble were feeling the camp crunch, too. What’s it like for parents in other corners of the country?

I put that question to my cousin, Tarana Chapple, a mother of three, who’s enrolled her kids in programs that range from ballet to public speaking to web design.

“I've lived on the East Coast, in the Midwest and, now, on the West Coast, and the challenge seems to be the same in each region,” she said. “The process has been daunting because you have to start looking as early as February or March and the most desirable camps fill up very quickly.”

And, apparently, it’s not just the high-end independent camps that are causing folks headaches.

When the first week of February rolled around, my college buddy, Erin Lindsey, posted a succinct call for commiseration on Facebook: “Who else is praying to the summer camp gods?” The Austin-based mom of two went on to comment on what her city camp registration relay race entails. “We have three different Saturdays when we have to be logged in at 9 a.m. so we can hopefully get a spot for both girls at these camps. I see ‘Camp Grandma’ in our future.”

Will Heron, a father of two who’s also down in Texas, feels her pain. “The city-sponsored camps fill up super fast. There are often parents in line hours ahead of time to sign up at places.”

And, as all these parents reported, more kids can mean more problems. “If I'm trying to put both of my girls in the same camp, it’s even harder to find two available spots for the same camp location,” Chapple explained.

“Older children are harder to please, as far as what type of camp they’re interested in,” she added, referring to her teenage son. “The camp hours also seem to be shorter when kids are older, making it more difficult to accommodate my work schedule.”

Heron went on to say that geography also plays a role in his decision-making dilemmas. “Just the driving — when two kids are in separate camps at opposite ends of town with similar start or end times — it requires the scheduling precision of a Blue Angel flyover.”

While I can’t relate to juggling offspring, I am familiar with the sticky situation of enrolling in tandem with buddies. If you’re trying to sync up with a classmate or BFF, you’d better hope the kids are still friends once June rolls around. Otherwise, you’ll have a case of both flaring temperatures and flaming tempers.

We submit to all this tedious pre-pre-pre-planning, all the while knowing how quickly things can change in our lives between now and June. (Maybe a once-in-a-lifetime travel opportunity will pop up or, perhaps, an unexpected wedding invitation will land in your mailbox.) We trudge through these summer camp applications even though we know that what Miller said of her own trio is true for all kids: “They’d rather be watching television for three consecutive months.”

Two things give me solace as I begrudgingly forge ahead with my own preparations: a.) my husband’s big February task is filing the taxes, so I guess I shouldn’t complain; and, b.) soon enough, my kid’ll be old enough to get a summer job … at which point I will sail off into the sunset and not return home until Labor Day.