Photos by Josh Hawkins / Chicago Parent
Working on picking out beads for making bracelets..
Wanted: moms seeking summer camp fun to exhilarate, not exhaust, children; low counselor-to-camper ratio; low-stress mornings; camp sessions that don't fill the short season. Found: a summer camp co-op to call their own. After searching for a children's camp to meet their needs, eight Chicago moms decided to take matters into their own beach bags. They created a summer co-op for their combined 15 camp-aged kids with a rotating lineup of experienced staff--themselves. Now approaching its third summer, the kid's camp offers four fun-filled weeks of swimming, tennis, field trips, crafts and more for $400 to $500 a family. The other plus for this group? There's a whole month of summer left after camp ends. "I sent my older daughter to a big summer camp when she was 5 and she had fun, but it was a long day, five days a week," says Jill Hart, a retail consultant and mom to campers Sydney, 8, and Samantha, 5. "We never had any family time during the summer, and we never had time to hang out. Every day was a rush to get out of the house. "But the first year of our camp was one of the best summers of my life," she says. "Everything fell into place. It was like playing with your kids and their friends. I almost wanted to be on every day." How it works This summer, camp begins July 7, and runs Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. until the first child is dropped off at home at 3 p.m. Three parents are scheduled to work each day, each responsible for driving and supervising five children. Days "on" are determined by a host of factors: preference of activities, who works well together, days off work, and days when families have hired a baby sitter to watch toddlers too young to join the fun. Each mom works two or three days a week. "On" parents are responsible for bringing a cooler, first aid kit, extra snacks and drinks, blankets, balls and other equipment such as a rotating art box to fill in unexpected free time between activities or at the end of the day. Campers, now ranging in age from 4 to 8, are responsible for bringing a backpack, swim suit, towel, sunscreen and lunch. If you're not scheduled to work, you can still attend all or part of the camp day, and bring a toddler. But if you're on, toddlers or siblings not attending camp need to stay home. "You're really there to work, not watch your other kids," says Hart. In the past, several dads have attended parts of camp days as their work schedules allowed. Parents met in January to review successes from the past two years and coordinate summer schedules. This year, they agreed to add structured activities, such as group tennis and art lessons, to the session. They also came to a consensus on drop-off and pickup times, an issue that cropped up last summer, when days seemed to end at different times. For the first time, they appointed a treasurer, Stephanie Traven, mom to campers Christian, 8, and Sophia, 5, to ensure the cost of camp is equitable for all families. Here's the lineup: Mondays are tennis days, with a two-hour lesson at the Mid-Town Tennis Club in Chicago. The group hits the beach on Tuesdays. Wednesdays are a prearranged art class at a Chicago studio, and Thursdays bring big outings including trips to Navy Pier, Brookfield Zoo, Kiddieland and the Highland Park Water Park. "These are places we went last year with success, but it was at the last-minute," says Karen Pulver, mom to campers Dylan, 8, and Skylar, 5. "We've found that big activities tend to work better if they're planned out and everyone knows what's coming." Each activity is followed by lunch and, with the exception of Thursdays, an afternoon adventure determined by the parents in charge, kids' interests and the weather. Options might include a museum visit, a trip to a park with a sprinkler, or ice cream and an art project at someone's home. The group may plan some extra outings on Fridays, such as a Cubs game or Great America. There's also a family kickoff party in June when campers will choose a group name and tie-dye camp T-shirts. "I like our camp because we get to go to lots of different places," says Dylan Pulver. "I like that different moms do it every time and that sometimes my mom can do it and I can be at camp with her." Moms like other moms as counselors, too. "I made a few surprise visits to Dylan's previous camp, and the counselors were talking to each other instead of getting in the pool with the kids," says Karen Pulver. "I'm so confident all the other moms are going to make sure everyone's OK." Interestingly, three of the moms, including Pulver; Jennifer Asimow, mom to campers Noah, 8, and Louie, 5, and Catherine Main, mom to Willie, 7, and Sarah, 4, are early childhood specialists. Still, they insist teaching experience isn't necessary. "You're a mom, you know stuff," says Pulver. Other kids' camp families include: Carol Fox and son Alex Girovich, 8; Chris Anderson Norton and kids Sophia Norton, 8, and Charlie Norton, 5; and Jennifer Rockhold and daughters Amelia, 8, and Miranda, 4. The first summer brought together seven kids, three girls and four boys, all classmates at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a Chicago public school on the North Side. Most of the children had younger siblings who joined the camp the second summer, as did the Traven family, bringing the total to eight girls and seven boys. All are eagerly returning this summer. "We wanted to make sure there were some girls and some boys, but ultimately it hasn't made a difference," says Rockhold. "This group of kids seem equally comfortable with girls and boys." Last year, parents decided to split up the younger and older kids, but after the first week they found everyone wanted to be together.
"We thought the older kids would be put off by the siblings joining the group but that wasn't the case," says Anderson. "And the best part for Charlie was being with the older boys." Now that the oldest kids will be entering third grade in the fall, has the camp run its course? "We're taking it one summer at a time," says Asimow, a former preschool director now working as a teacher trainer at Harold Washington College. "At the end of the year, we'll revisit why we started the camp, ask if it's still meeting our needs, then adjust or move on. "Whatever we decide, we believe the camp is special and I think our kids believe it too," she says. "I like getting to know my kids' friends really, really well. My kids know that not everyone gets to do all these things with their mom. And I know how lucky I am to get to spend this time with them." Jill Hart agrees. "At school our kids don't always hang out together but they do have a special friendship," she says. "It's like a little family. It makes the city seem a little smaller."
Monica Ginsburg is the mom of two and a freelance writer based in Chicago.