Day camps: Youths learn, and parents get a respite

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An article in Sunday's Howard County edition of The Sun incorrectly stated the cost of sending a child to Camp Funshine. The correct price is $90 for the entire three-week session.

* The Sun regrets the error.

The next generation of astronauts, archaeologists, sailors and soccer players is training in Howard County this summer.

At dozens of summer day camps throughout the county, children ages 2 through 16 are learning everything from basic reading skills and computer programming, to swimming and building birdhouses.

"I've got a full summer of camps," said 8-year-old "Space Invaders" camper Kevin Lai, who is learning about astronomy and astronauts during the two-week camp. "I already went to Triple A Sports [Academy], and I'm going to go to soccer camp after this. Last summer I had five or six camps to go to."

As summer camps move toward greater specialization, campers such as Kevin are becoming more common. Parents used to enroll their children in a single eight-week camp, but some of today's Howard County campers attend two, four or even eight camps.

Area camp directors estimate that more than 10,000 children in the county will participate in at least one camp of some kind this summer.

The children say they enjoy the diversity of activities, and their parents praise the camps as some of the cheapest summer day care around. Full-day camps typically charge $100 to $150 a week, and half-day camps for younger children cost about half that much.

Before the summer even began, parents endured the spring sign-up scramble as they sought to secure spots in Howard's camps.

"There's quite a cafeteria offering available, for us as well as others in the county," said Laura Wetherald, supervisor of area programs for the county's Department of Recreation and Parks. "We see lots of parents signing their children up for a different camp for every week or two of the whole summer."

That department and the Columbia Association -- the two largest organizers of camps in the county -- offer more than 100 camps this summer, many of which have so many youths registered that they are being repeated to accommodate more children. And that doesn't include the numerous smaller camps being run privately.

During a recent morning at Swansfield Elementary School, Space Invaders campers built spacesuit helmets as children in the next classroom learned to square dance as part of "Pioneer Days" camp.

Meanwhile, campers in Swansfield's Kinder CARE and Summer Escapades programs frolicked on the school's playground and painted pictures in the art room. In all, almost 80 children were participating in programs at the school last week.

"All of the kids certainly keep things hopping," said Mike Sears, who supervises summer camps at Swansfield. "With so many camps and kids in here, it seems like the regular school year. Almost every classroom is being used for something."

Because so many children seek to enroll, most parents start thinking about the summer long before the last month of school. The planning often begins as soon as the brochures become available in March.

"The first day that the brochure comes out, I go through it along with the neighbors," said Joanne Howard of Columbia. "We all try to plan ahead to get our children into the programs and to figure out transportation.

"With such good programs, everybody wants to get in, so you definitely have to plan ahead," said Ms. Howard, whose two sons are enrolled in several camps this summer.

In the Columbia Association camps, most of the slots are filled by April 1, the end of the 18-day early enrollment period for families living or working on association-assessed property, said Donna Grant, the association's director of camps.

How does a parent choose from among so many offerings?

For the preschoolers and teen-agers, it's not difficult because fewer camps are available. For children of elementary and middle school age, however, the options can be bewildering.

"I sat down with my mom, and we went through the catalogs. There were lots of choices," said Paul Drosnes, 7, who was attending Creativity Camp at River Hill High School last week. "I'm really into art and nature and tennis, so we kind of looked for things that sounded like they would fit in with that.

"And my mom decided I needed to learn how to swim this summer, so she made sure I got into that kind of camp, too," Paul said. In addition to creativity camp, Paul's summer schedule includes camps on nature, tennis and swimming.

In families with more than one child, logistics also play a large role in selecting camps. Because transportation is not provided, parents must plan how they will get their children to various parts of the county on time.

"It's not easy, but the logistics is something I think I can handle," said Mary Ellen Creasy, who drives her son and a daughter to different camps each day. "I make it work."

Not every camp is solely dedicated to fun. Thanks to a $10,000 grant from United Way, the teachers at Bryant Woods Elementary School were able to select 25 first- through fourth-graders for a free four-week camp to improve their academics.

Those campers are spending their mornings brushing up on math and reading skills and their afternoons in more traditional camp activities, such as swimming and softball.

"The academic enrichment is really helping the children, and we're trying to run the classes in a way that's a little different and more fun than the regular school year," said Leslie Weinberg, a resource teacher for gifted and talented students at the school and one of four teachers running the program this summer.

Parents also see the summer camps as a valuable day care option.

For example, as Moya Wadsworth's son and daughter paint and play at River Hill's Camp Funshine every morning, she has three hours to run errands.

"It's such a wonderful experience for my kids that's really cheap, and I get time to exercise or do whatever else I have to do," Ms. Wadsworth said. Camp Funshine charges $90 a week per child, a "really reasonable cost," she said.

Many of the camps sponsored by the Columbia Association and the recreation department also offer extended care options, permitting children in three- or six-hour camps to be supervised for the entire day.

"Every day when the parents pick up their kids, I can see how much they value this care," said Suzann Bond, a counselor at Camp Funshine in the mornings and Pointers Run Elementary School's extended care in the afternoons. "It's the perfect solution for the working family."

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