Surprises await at home day camp

Discover the city in summer—together


Sara Kutliroff


Reader Essay My friends Sami, Rena and I were sitting around the kitchen last May over coffee discussing our children’s summer plans.

“I’m doing the JCC Day Camp again this year. How ’bout you, Sam?” Rena asked.

“Yeah, me too. I also want to sign them up for ballet and T-ball after camp,” Sami replied.

I looked at the floor. “I’m keeping the kids home this summer,” I said in as confident a voice as I could muster.

“WHAT?” they screamed in unison.

Yes. I had decided to keep my three children home from camp. What happened to the good old days of playing in the sprinkler all day? Making art projects and baking cookies with Mom? Or taking day trips to local museums? I had decided not to over-schedule my children that summer. Boy, was I in for a ride.

This idea hatched in early May as I was filling out forms for the day camp where my kids have spent the last three summers. I was signing my name on all the dotted lines when I came to the “amount due” section.

I didn’t want to spend nearly $2,000 for my kids to do something they never much enjoyed anyway. My son hated the swim program. My daughter couldn’t stand her counselor from the summer before. Both complained regularly that there was never enough time to play. Between school, homework, soccer practice, ballet, games and play dates, there wasn’t time to just be.

How hard could it be?

My husband and I discussed the idea of my keeping the kids home all day, every day, for the whole summer. Hey, I reasoned, how hard could it be?

Then I explained to my children that we’d be spending some quality, and much quantity, time together developing our own camp—Camp Kutliroff. We would import one counselor for assistance (their aunt, my teenage sister, from New York). We decided to come up with a schedule, camp T-shirts, field trips and projects, all of our own choosing. Much to my surprise, my children not only agreed, but were excited about the idea.

Later that evening, I had a whopping headache as the idea of my children being home for 10 weeks—without a moment to myself—moved from my idealistic heart into my now panic-stricken brain. My husband assured me at least 100 times before and during Camp Kutliroff that I could do this and promised to give me extra time in the evenings for myself.

I spent the first few weeks of June researching camp ideas on the Internet. I was overwhelmed by the number of options in the Chicago area. My sister and I chose some of the best and most affordable ones. We planned a schedule of circle time, outdoor play and a different trip every day, interspersed with science, art and a few surprises.

Surprising success

Camp Kutliroff began as a huge success. We discovered many new things about our city. We visited the Skokie pool at least twice a week. We bought a pass to the Chicago Children’s Museum. All the money we were saving allowed us to do a few fancier trips, such as making a camp mascot at the Build-A-Bear Workshop and becoming actors in a movie at the Museum of Science and Industry.

We even developed our own Web page, thanks to my computer-literate sister. We learned science from books checked out at the library. We made a backyard carnival complete with dollar-store prizes and Svetlana the clown (who looked a whole lot like Mommy in some funny clothes).

My kids were having a ball, we were saving a bundle of money and I was getting the opportunity to see my children in a whole new light. Instead of fighting with each other, my 8-year-old and 5-year-old were playing. Instead of ignoring the baby, they watched her take her first steps and walk to each of them. The looks of awe on their faces were priceless. Camp took on a life of its own as the kids came up with idea after idea.

As for time for myself, well, there just wasn’t any. I would try to catch a few minutes here or there while the baby napped or my sister was outside with the older two. My husband made good on his promise to help. When he got home from work, he would send my sister and me out to the movies, shopping, dinner or just driving around town for some free time.

On a particularly hard day toward the end of the summer, I was ready to throw in the towel. I had no time to do laundry or clean my house—one of the few downsides to Camp Kutliroff. My kids were all in a funky mood this particular day. The baby wouldn’t stop emptying the trash onto the floor. We had just come back from a long trip and I hadn’t yet begun to think about dinner. I was ready to quit Camp Kutliroff and excused myself to my room.

With long faces, my kids followed me in and sat down. My daughter hugged me and said, “Mommy, I don’t ever want to go to day camp again. Camp Kutliroff is the best camp on earth!”

My son agreed and asked if he could sign up a friend or two. He had mentioned camp to them and they were really interested in joining. Somehow that gave us all the strength to get through the rest of the day and enjoy what was left of our summer.

One of our last camp activities was a treasure hunt at a nearby park. My daughter was searching for the treasures when she jokingly said, “Mommy, look, I found our family.” What she didn’t realize is that she had pointed out the biggest treasure of all. 


Sara Kutliroff is a writer and a mother of three living in Skokie.


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