Summer camp for kids is an expensive necessity these days

No one told me that free summers would cost so much.

For weeks, I have been combing through websites in search of affordable and convenient summer day camps for my 6-year-old daughter, who now is in public school, so her summers are free.

A $150 a week camp doesn’t sound so horrible compared with the costs of day care, but multiply that by 10 weeks, and it is a significant burden, particularly on single parents and low-income families.

The news of the past week has not helped matters. The average home price in Houston topped $400,000, and inflation reached levels not seen since the 1980s, leaving parents like me scrambling to find things for their kids do this during the 10-week break that won’t leave us broke.

“My plan right now is that there is no plan,” said Lauren Harris, who has a 10-year-old son, Caleb, and 7-year-old daughter, Chloe, with her husband, Trey. “I’m usually done by February with my summer camps, but with inflation and the rise in tuition, we’re looking for something different. Something more affordable.”

Harris, a customer success manager for an education technology company, had previously enrolled her children in summer day camps at Urban Chef, which averaged $450 per week per child. She looked into sending her daughter to gymnastics camp at Simone Biles’ World Champion Center in Spring, but at $50 a day, it adds up — especially when combined with her daughter’s dance classes, which cost $90 a month and performance costumes.

Her son wants to run track and do archery, like her late father, a former police officer and competitive archer. Swimming lessons, a summer essential, come with a price tag unless you snag a spot on the waiting lists for free lessons with a city or county program. Harris plans to hire a trained lifeguard for swim lessons at a friend’s pool.

“I never knew it would be this tedious and expensive to plan summers for my children,” she said.

The average weekly rate for day camp ranges from $199 to $800, while overnight camps run between $680 and $2,000 a week, according to the American Camp Association. Also, the Center for American Progress has found that parents with two children actually end up paying closer to $3,000 for summer programs.

But cost isn’t the only issue. Access, particularly during the hours parents need care for the kids during the summer, is often not available. The challenges are even more difficult for a child with special needs.

The lack of free-care summer options impacts a mother’s ability to work consistently, which has a ripple effect on families, said Elizabeth Gregory, English professor and director of University of Houston’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender & Sexuality.

“If public school went into summer mode for those families who wanted it, it could function as a fun summer enrichment opportunity for all Houston kids, and parents could keep their jobs,” she said.

The blessing of the pandemic was that my summer camp was free — in my backyard with inflatable pools, rollerskating challenges, chalk-art displays and simple science projects in the driveway.

Harris said the time at home during the pandemic allowed her to take children on nature walks and take an inventory of her kids — academically and emotionally.

“I immersed myself in learning more about my children, their likes and dislikes, and how I can be a better parent,” she said.

Sometime those parents who are fortunate to find summer camp deals are reluctant to share the details, too.

“They see this as very competitive and feel that if they share the fruits of their labor (about finding summer camps), they’ll run out of fruit,” said Nwamaka Unaka, who works for the city of Houston and has two daughters, ages 5 and 4 months. “But sharing information with other parents helps everyone.”

Each summer, Unaka assesses what summer experience she wants her 5-year-old to have and creates a spreadsheet to keep track of prices and times. She also looks for camps that offer scholarships based on economic equity or ability.

“I want to give my child a plethora of experiences so that she goes into the world well-rounded. Summer camp is also a chance to help her establish relationships outside of school that will transcend now,” she said.

It’s not too late to find a good experience for your child that you can afford, she said.

Houston Parks and Recreation offers free summer camps at community centers, and the Houston Public Library is bringing back its Camp STREAM (science, technology, reading, engineering, arts and math) with registration opening on May 2. Also, organizations like MECA Houston, The Forge for Families and local churches and community centers have summer camp offerings.

The Alley Theater offers weeklong camps starting at $325; Limited scholarships are available. Also, the Ensemble Theater’s Young Performers program has virtual camp sessions for $125 and in-person $500, and Creativity Shell in Kingwood provides week-long cooking, sewing, art and even interior design camps for kids starting at $225.

But many camps, such as Houston Zoo’s Camp Zoofari and Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Xploration camps, are typically filled up by now; scholarship applications were closed months ago.

It would be a dream for my kids to have summers like I had.

My mother was a teacher who had summers off, so we often spent the time at my grandparents’ Missouri farm, where we’d run through corn fields and pick berries. We learned how to get eggs from the chicken coup and feed pigs without falling into the slop. We listened to baseball games by radio while my grandfather drank his tall glass of buttermilk.

Most evenings, we would watch a perfect sunset from a wooden porch swing while a symphony of cicadas played.

At least I have the memories to share.

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