Hazy, not-so-lazy days of summer

The Baltimore Sun

This summer, members of the Amberger family will sail in the Inner Harbor, visit the Florida Keys, go bird-watching and participate in a two-week intensive German language program.

But it's the junior members of the family who will have all the adventures. Mom and Dad aren't planning to go on vacation, although they might need one after a summer of driving the kids to summer camps.

Not long ago, children spent summer days lobbing water balloons, leaping through the sprinkler and slouching on the sofa watching television.

But summer doesn't seem so lazy any more.

Now many children find their summer schedules jam-packed with activities ranging from Shakespeare to sailing as working parents struggle to keep the kids safe and entertained. Parents plan for months in advance, make arrangements to send the kids to grandparents' homes and shift their schedules, sometimes at the expense of seeing their spouse or taking a family vacation.

"The first couple years it was a logistical challenge," says Joanna Amberger. Now the 42-year-old Towson resident keeps a color-coded calendar in her minivan so she knows which of her three children to drop off at which camp each day.

Scheduling presents some thorny problems, since many programs begin or end while parents are at work. And a rush of applicants at the most desirable camps means that parents have to sign kids up in March or earlier.

"By February, parents are champing at the bit," said Bonnie Minkler of the Irvine Nature Center camp in Stevenson. "Our registration normally begins around mid-February and some of our camps are full in a few hours and some in a few days."

At camp, children can learn about topics that interest them, make friends, gain confidence and get exercise, early childhood experts say. But they caution that highly structured schedules can rob children of the creative play and exploration that are an important part of development.

"The freedom to make our own choices, make our own timetables, a sense of control over our day ... to a certain degree, children might not have the opportunity to do those things with their summers," says Towson University early education professor Edyth Wheeler.

"I remember from my youth that we were always finding bugs," she says. "I'm not sure that kids are looking for bugs that much any more."

An unstructured activity like hunting insects can teach children valuable skills, she adds.

When choosing summer camps, parents should look for programs that allow children time to make up their own games and explore, she says.

Mary Rivkin, an education professor at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agrees. "We need to think about down time," she says. "Recreation means to re-create, to rebuild your energy and your joy in life. Little humans need it as much as big ones."

Natalie Artola, a 10-year-old from Ellicott City, told her parents she wanted to take a break this summer.

Last year, she spent the vacation acting in plays, walking on a balance beam, and improving her tennis and swimming strokes at the five different day camps that she attended.

Her parents, who both work full time, made certain that Natalie participated in a variety of activities that she liked. This year she said she just wanted to hang out around the house.

"She thinks that she would like something unstructured like mom had," says Sandy Artola, 43, referring to her own childhood of playing Red Rover, tag and dolls with her sisters and brother.

"She seems to think that will be so great and wonderful but I'm not so sure," Artola says. "I always went to my mom and said, 'I'm bored. I'm bored.' "

Natalie will stay with her grandmother for a couple of weeks, then, after a brief stint in vacation Bible camp and in a neighbor's care, she will spend the rest of the summer at home.

Sandy Artola and her husband, Paul, who both work for the Department of Defense, have been able to adjust their schedules to care for her. Paul will stay home with Natalie in the morning, then pass her over to Sandy in the parking lot for the afternoon shift. The schedule changes mean that Sandy and Paul won't see each other much during those weeks.

Other young people say that summer camps are the highlight of their year. Rachel Sherman, a 15-year-old rising junior at the Carver Center for Arts and Technology and a counselor-in-training at Irvine, the nature center, says that she packed her vacations with gymnastics, swim team and nature camp, and loved every minute of it. Last year, she was too old for camp and too young to be a counselor.

"I sat around the house and it was really boring," she says. To make matters worse, she says, her mother suggested that she clean out closets or wash windows during her free time.

The youngest Amberger child, 8-year-old Sophie, is also a camp lover. At Irvine this week, she's tromped through the woods looking for birds, spotted salamanders and crayfish in a stream and, yes, hunted for bugs. Yesterday, some of her fellow campers played a rollicking game of "Park Ranger"- an ecstatic mix of tag and animal noises - while Sophie's group sat in a field of clover learning about bird calls.

Camp definitely beats a day around the house, Sophie says. "At home, if my friend is not home, I really have nothing to do except go to my room and read," she says, adding, "Reading is one of my favorite things, but once I start, I don't want to stop."

Her mother says she works hard to ensure that her children are engaged in wholesome and educational activities during the summer months.

"The thought of someone just vegetating is pretty difficult for me to get my mind around," Joanna Amberger says.

Her sons, 11-year-old Sebastian and 14-year-old Max, have spent the past week on the water at the Downtown Sailing Center's camp. Later on, Sebastian will head to a Boy Scout camp and a science camp at Villa Julie College. Max will sail through the Florida Keys with the Scouts, then study German at a camp in Minnesota.

In between, the kids will each spend a week alone with their grandparents in Ohio. On off weeks, they might come along to mom's office in the genetics department at Johns Hopkins Hospital or stay home with their parents and work on projects.

Joanna Amberger and her husband Christoph, a publisher with Agora, have rearranged their workdays so that they can get the kids to camp. But they're making an even bigger sacrifice - they're forfeiting the annual family vacation in Maine so that the kids can attend all the camps that interest them.

Wheeler, the Towson University early childhood education professor, recommends that children who attend camp during the week spend weekends having unstructured playtime at home.

"The one thing that we need to stress is creative play and creative expression," says Wheeler, who spent her childhood summers acting out plays and rolling down hills with friends in the neighborhood. "Many of our happy adult memories actually come from our childhood summertimes."

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

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