It's Their Vacation and You're the Tour Guide: How to Organize Camp Mom | Kids Out and About Dallas

It's Their Vacation and You're the Tour Guide: How to Organize Camp Mom

Some kids attend day camp all summer. But not yours; they're mostly home with you. How do you make sure free time doesn't turn into wasted time? Try Camp Mom!

By Debra Ross

They're home. Or they will be soon. To them the summer seems an endlessly delicious time of sprinklers and popsicles, butterflies, bike rides, and ball games, and, most important, no set bed time.


To you, the summer stretches ahead like an ocean of emptiness that it is your responsibility to fill. And, like any parent, you feel the pressure to make sure they don't spend the summer in front of the TV or the computer, and that they don't fall behind all the other kids from school who are attending physics camp and attacking their summer required reading list with gusto.

And yet, you know that summertime is kid time. You want them to remember this time in the same way we remember our own childhood summers: as an all-too-short couple of months free from the tedious routines of school.

Think about how your kids' time is managed during the school year. Chances are, it's beyond their direct control: It tends to be so structured by school, sports, and their parents' schedules that kids may simply not know what to do with "down time"—so they quickly become bored when left to their own devices.


Enter Camp Mom:
A mixture of creativity, academics, physical fitness, art, and culture

I believe that kids require a mix of structured and unstructured time to thrive. Structured time helps them learn what they need to in order to grow into independent thinking adults; unstructured time allows them to take control of their lives, to develop their own passions and pursue them, uninterrupted by someone else's schedule and needs.

Summer is the ideal time to teach kids how to devise their own entertainment and follow their own interests--in short, to discover the world at their own pace. However, "unstructured" need not mean "out of Mom's control." In fact, you can craft your kids' unstructured time by bringing them to new places to explore, or tempt them with a great craft materials to let their imaginations run wild, or let them loose in your local library and see what they discover.

The beauty of Camp Mom is that you can hold it for a day, a week, a month, or sporadically throughout the summer. If you have children of different ages, you can make the older kids counselors-in-training. And, of course, what I suggest here applies equally to Camp Dad.

As the director of Camp Mom, your role is to help your kids develop their bodies and minds, to introduce them to new experiences and challenges, to help them become more culturally literate, and, perhaps most important, to bond with them as they implicitly understand the joy you take in their engagement with the world. Camp Mom is structured, but not rigid. It's directed by Mom, but guided by suggestions from the kids. It is filled with possibilities for active fun and learning, but is not overwhelming. This will be my third year of running the Ross Camp Mom. The following are the top 10 tips I have compiled from my own experiences and those of others who have provided very useful feedback.

Top 10 Tips for Camp Mom Success

1. Brand Your Camp

The success of Camp Mom depends in large part on the enthusiastic participation of campers and counselors alike. So getting your kids to "sign on" to the concept at the beginning of the summer is crucial.

First, name your camp. We still call our camp "Camp Mommy" because my girls are young enough to be tickled by the name, but I'm pretty sure we'll switch to "Camp Ross" as soon as they prefer something more grown-up.

Second, make camp paraphernalia. Kids love doing this. Each summer, we start our Camp by making T-shirts for each of us (including me!). We use a different color T-shirt each year; I create a design on the computer (usually including a recent photo of the two girls together) which I print out on iron-on transfer paper. After the transfers have cooled, we get out the fabric paints and the girls decorate the front and back with a many-hued design--the more colorful, the better. (If they wear the T-shirts during messy projects throughout the summer, the stains will look like a natural part of the shirt!) If you don't want to make T-shirts, make signs, or name buttons, or door knockers--something to signal that summer has begun and camp is in session.

2. Plan for Success

There is no question that a little time spent preparing saves many times that amount in fuss during the Camp Mom day.

How to Plan

I buy a small notebook for Camp Mom that looks different from my more businesslike notebooks. Then, whenever my kids have an idea for Camp Mom, they urge me to go and get the pink notebook with the flowers, and when they see me with that notebook, they know that it means fun!

To plan Camp Mom, I spend an hour or two at the beginning of the summer thinking up various themes, and jotting down ideas for making those themes work within the context of academics, physical education, culture, the arts, and character development. I note any supplies I will need or reservations I will make. (Camp Mom can cost next to nothing if you're creative about using the resources you have!)

Each weekend, I decide on the theme for the upcoming week, sometimes with input from the girls. Then, each evening, 10 minutes spent with the notebook gives me more than enough ideas for the next day. If I wait until the next morning to plan, this 10-minute process is guaranteed to last three times that, with all of the distractions and interruptions; instead of being ahead of the game, I'm already a half-hour behind.

What to Plan

My plan for the summer is not all devised by me, alone. (I'm pretty smart, but not that smart.) I rely on several resources to provide ideas and guidance:


  • E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge Series: As big fans of cultural literacy, my husband and I have relied on E.D. Hirsch, Jr. for guidance about what information to introduce our children to, at what age. I flip through my Hirsch books all the time to get great ideas about what to talk about or read to my kids. It's not just lists, either...there is indeed parental guidance, but most of each book provides text and pictures to read with your children.


  • Home Science Tools: Help your kids realize that science is fun! Discover the wonders of the world together in the summertime. Home Science Tools makes science discovery fun and accessible for kids, parents, and teachers. We have used their products and resources for years in our home school and in Camp Mom.


  • Author Anne McCallum provides some yummy ideas in her two terrific cookbooks Eat Your Math Homework and Eat Your Science Homework. These two books have been staples in our house for years; they are full not only of yummy recipes that kids can follow, but the fantastic illustrations and engagingly-presented info about math and science that surround the recipes will have kids smiling and learning at the same time.


  • Games for Math by Peggy Kaye. Games for Mathis a book to be used by the parent, and contains dozens of age-specific math games for preschoolers through third grade. Each math game is explained in detail, in language parents can understand; you easily see not just what to do, but what it teaches mathematically. My girls love it; they pull the book off the shelf themselves and insist we use it.


  • Math-U-See- For those of you whose children need to brush up your math skills, we have had great success with Math-U-See. This is a manipulatives-based program, which also includes videos and workbooks to show you how to bring your children from skill to skill. It would make a nice structured curriculum for the summer. Also, there so many computer math games online and for purchase that I find it too difficult to point out one or two here.


  • Arts & Crafts: It's almost not worth it to purchase how-to arts and crafts books anymore because there are thousands of web resources to give you ideas. Here is just one that I found on Pinterest. If you just Google "kids arts and crafts resources," you'll find 124 million results.


  • Brush up on reading skills For kids in grades K-2 or for older kids who need to practice reading skills, there are free reading skills games all over the internet. is just one.


  • Devise a reading list! The web site provides some great summer reading lists as a starting point, divided by age group. Adrienne Pettinelli, director of the Henrietta Public Library in Henrietta, NY, adds: "You should also check out the Guys Read website, an excellent resource for the boys in your life. For kids who don't love novels (and, hey, there's nothing wrong with that), I'd recommend the National Science Teachers Association's annual lists of Outstanding Science Trade Books. I'd also encourage parents to remember bookish things that aren't books, like Mad Libs, magazines, and crossword puzzles. Mad Libs are my favorite sneaky way of encouraging kids to work on reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary, and creativity. Wordy games like Scrabble, Boggle, and Apples to Apples are fun skill-builders, too."

    Most libraries have a Summer Reading program that provide rewards for reading; check out the program early in the summer to get a head start.

  • One more reading idea: Because much of the point of Camp Mom is to connect with your children, one terrific way to do that is to find the books that you enjoyed as a child and read those with your kids. If they're already reading, you can have them read the books and then re-read them yourself. Because my girls aren't reading fluently yet, I'm reading tothem, of course. You'll see that books that have stood the test of time typically do so for a reason: They speak to universal themes that we humans have experienced throughout the ages. They also tend to be better-written and often more profound than those published today.
  • Our reading list so far has included (those of you who were readers when you were kids, get ready for a trip down memory lane!): The Laura Ingalls Wilder series, books by Sheila Greenwald, The Boxcar Children, and the E.B. White books, especially The Trumpet of the Swan. I'm looking forward to introducing them to the Bobbsey Twins, Beverly Cleary's various series (Ramona, Betsy, Eddie), Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Judy Blume books, and Trixie Belden (the first four Trixie books are back in print). I've just spent a pretty penny ordering several books from the turn-of-the-last-century "Maida" series by Inez Haynes Irwin from an out-of-print online bookseller; those are next on the list, and they're worth the extra expense. You'll be amazed how the stories and characters come floating back to you over 25 years of time, and you'll imagine your kids doing this with their own children some day.

3. Choose a Goal or Two

You may or may not tell your child, but it is a good idea to set some goals for the summer in terms of what you plan to cover or what you want the results to be. They may be as concrete as "Make sure Jason knows the times tables up to 12's" if he is behind on multiplication, or "Get autographs from each Red Wings baseball player," or as abstract as "Engage in different physical activity each day" or "Learn all about Lake Ontario." If you set these goals, not only are you more likely to meet them, but you'll have just that many more reasons to feel great about what you're doing for your kids.

For example, in our house one summer, my goal was for us each to be more proficient in Spanish. I didn't tell Madison and Ella, because sometimes if my girls get even a hint that it's important to me that they learn something particular, that's instantly a reason for mild rebellion. But in this case it's easy, because we had fun using the BBC's Muzzy program, available from Early Advantage. It's a little expensive, but there is a 30-day return policy. So I got the program in April, and the girls were making strides by June. They love Muzzy (a big, misunderstood, fuzzy alien who eats clocks and loves people), they love watching the DVD, and they don't even mind supplementing it with practicing with me and the workbooks. (There's nothing kids like better than correcting their parents!) This is one time when you actually want the kids to watch the same DVD over and over, because they learn new words and grammar each time. And there's no getting around the fact that kids really do like to watch this turns what might be a passive hour into active learning.

This summer, my colleague, Stacy, will be experimenting with Rosetta Stone's Japanese program for her teenager. Stay tuned for her review!

Or how about a grand reorganizing as your goal? Everyone will be happy, especially if the kids are involved. The uber-organizing experts at have a great suggestion: Camp Gonna Wanna Fly. Click on some of the links there like Kid Power, Big Kids, Ideas, and Activities.

4. Structuring Your Time

There are two aspects to structuring time in Camp Mom: Hour by hour during the day, and day by day during the week. Both areas need attention.

Structuring your Week

Linda Pratt, a Rochester-area educational consultant who ran a Camp Mom for her daughter Jean for many years, made sure that each weekday had a certain kind of activity that was designated as the "featured event of the day":

Jean at Oswego Harborfest

      I usually plan one day as a field trip/extra expense day. That could be going to a museum, a festival, or a day trip. One year, we went to the Harriet Tubman house and Emerson park in Auburn, then up Rt 38 to Oswego to their Harborfest. We did it all in one day... and the next day was designated as "Sleep In Day."

 Another day we spend learning or playing a new game. I got a bunch of ideas from 52 Alternatives to TV, a deck of 52 cards with lots of things to do that are low-tech, low-cost, low-mess, and fun. Our KidsOutAndAbout articles 50 Ways to Love Your Summer and Your Kids Will Be Rich: Free Family Games are great resources for this, especially outside/backyard ones. 

We would also try a new recipe each week. We have made fruit tarts, fruity fizzy drinks, waffle pizza, and even attempted a fruit pie. With all the U-pick farms around, this was a good deal.

Here are some other suggestions for helping to structure your week: Certain days of the week might be Library Day, Hike Day, Home Improvement Day, Garden Day, Sports Day, Nature Day, History Day, or Volunteer Day.

In the Rosses' Camp Mom, we usually select a Theme of the Week. I find that this provides a wonderful means not only of helping me get ideas for activities, but of focusing the girls' attention in a way that helps them have an active mind for the entire day--they actively seek anything and everything that might integrate into our theme. Even normally passive activities become active this way: If our Theme of the Week is "water," for example, the kids will deliberately choose a few down-time videos that work within the theme, like The Little Mermaid or The Swiss Family Robinson. And if we're driving in the car, one of them is likely to be gazing out the window and suddenly point: "Hey, mom, a river! Remember, it's water week!

Structuring your Day

During the course of the day, it is critical for me to have a schedule of activities, and to keep the type of activity planned for the time of day somewhat regular so that kids know what to expect. (If you're focusing on math, this seems to be extra important; much of my understanding from the home schooling crowd suggests that they find their kids most ready to do mathematics first thing in the morning rather than at the end of the day.) A typical daily schedule might look like this for us (remember, my girls are pre-K and 1st grade, so you'll need to adjust these for age and interest):

  • Free time until breakfast
  • Breakfast, during which we:
  •     Talk about the Birthday of the Day (we find them by going to the main page on Wikipedia and clicking "On This Day"), check out that person's accomplishments on the laptop computer
  •     Discuss the day's schedule and make improvements
  • Get dressed, brush teeth, make bed, straighten bedroom (this goes for the mom as well as the kids!)
  • Math games from Games for Math. Focus on the number 8.
  • Music (learn about "octaves" on the keyboard)
  • Pack lunch and visit a new playground
  • Play, eat lunch, and take a little hike near the playground. collect a sample of a leaf from a deciduous tree, and from an evergreen.
  • Home for Reading Time (perhaps out in the tree house...especially if we're reading the Magic Tree House series series)
  • Show and Tell - child's choice
  • Penmanship workbooks (when they resist, I instead supply tracing paper and have them trace Calvin and Hobbes or other cartoons, great for building control but not so borin)
  • Snack
  • Magic School Bus for Lunch video, during which we think about what's happening to our snack (tomorrow we'll trace each child on brown craft paper and draw in the digestive system)
  • YMCA for swimming
  • All help make dinner
  • Discuss digestive system with Dad during dinner
  • After dinner until bed time, free time (Mom fine-tunes tomorrow's plan

The next day will look different, of course, with new activities and subjects covered, although the rhythm will be similar each day.

Will we get all of this done? The beauty of it is that it doesn't matter. If we do, great...if not, we'll just have more ideas for tomorrow. But there is no question that we'll be able to look back, satisfied, on each and every day. And the girls will have plenty to tell Dad at dinner.

5. See the World

The way to start your children developing cultural literacy is to give them a thorough introduction to the world around them. Gradually, you expand that world and their understanding of it to new cultures and new worlds. It is difficult to do this if you just read books around your kitchen table, no matter how many of them you bring home from the library. Fortunately, our culture celebrates children and learning, and to a large extent it still celebrates mastery of history and science. There is virtually no end to the opportunities to expose children to history, science, and the arts, in their own culture and in others'. Of course, that's what is all about; it's to gather all of these wonderful regional resources in one convenient place to make it easy for you to expand your children's horizons.

So seek out these resources. You can visit close-by venues on the spur of the moment, and although longer day trips require more planning, that's just another skill to help your kids acquire...make sure they're involved! Print out a map for each child (even those who don't yet understand) from your favorite online map service, and mark milestones along the way so they can see where they are and where they are going. Try when you're out to seek out at least one person who knows about things that Mom doesn't, according to where you're traveling, and use that person actively as a resource to let the kids see that even adults learn and love it. Bring music or books on tape for the car. Pack a backpack so each child is responsible for his own snacks and drinks.

6. Academics

Because kids tend to view summer as a time in which they are "free" from school, you may be a little taken aback by my recommendation to continue with academic subjects during the summer. I think that one of my main functions as a parent is to introduce my children to the joy of learning, to cultivate in them the attitude that learning is a lifelong activity, and to show them that learning is the main means by which they will become competent to live independently, productively, and happily. So I view my girls' education as my responsibility rather than some school officials', winter,spring, autumn, and summer. Of course, I make sure to make it fun rather than a chore.

The academic activities tend to be the most structured time of the Camp Mom day. If your child is behind in a particular subject, you may feel the need to set specific goals, and these goals may dictate the subjects you work on. For others, it's easiest to get ideas by thinking about the subjects kids need to learn, and focusing on those in which the parent is most interested or can make the best contribution. A good mixture will go a long way toward staving off boredom, too.

Here are some ideas of skills kids need to master. We typically pick two or three per day and, if we have a theme, the activities practically generate themselves.

  • Reading
  • Math
  • Fine motor control (penmanship, drawing, cutting)
  • Gross motor control (jumping, climbing)
  • Exercise
  • Music
  • Cooking
  • Stories: Hearing them and telling them/role play
  • Geography
  • History/sense of themselves in a particular time & place
  • Show and Tell
  • Home management/improvement/organization
  • Personal hygiene
  • Character/ethics
  • Science/nature

For example, if our theme is, say, mammals, we might read Beatrix Potter or James Herriott as our reading activity; I might challenge the girls to devise a kangaroo jumping game and teach me the rules for gross motor practice; we might act out the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf as both role play and ethics (and if I'm feeling spunky I might find both the Aesop's Fable version of that story AND the passage in Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods where her cousin Charly is stung by bees, a perfect illustration of the story.

See? Does that seem like school to you? No? It seems like something you wish your mom had done back in the '70s? And you won't believe how easy it is, too. I simply chose that theme of "mammals" on the spur of the moment, looked over that list of topics, and I instantly had almost too many ideas. Really. I didn't even mention how we could sing "I Know An Old Lady" and identify which of the things she swallowed were insects, arachnids, birds, and mammals (no reptiles). And how many songs do you know about dogs, or horses, or bears? There are almost endless places on the web you can download coloring pages of all kinds of animals, for fine motor skill development. You can search the web for kid-oriented science info on mammals. You can do "mammal math" with word problems you devise at the child's level. Cooking? Well, maybe you'd better stay away from the subject of cooking with respect to learning about mammals. There may be such a thing as too much information!

7. Physical activity

Everyone knows that exercise should be integrated into everyone's day, from babies through grandparents: It's a vital part of making sure kids grow up healthy and strong, and it's a vital part of ensuring that you remain healthy and strong so that your kids needn't become your caretakers in your golden years. But how many of use the excuse that we're "too busy with the kids" to take the time to exercise ourselves? But for kids, especially if you make it a point from when they are very young, physical activity is a wonderful way to experience the power of their own bodies. As you can see from the sample schedule above, exercise should be incorporated into various points of the day. And there are so many to choose from! From structured running and jumping games you can devise for your toddler, through organized team sports and everything in between, exercise is both healthful and fun, especially when you do it together!

8. Crafts and The Arts

What would Camp -- or childhood, for that matter -- be without arts and crafts? In the Ross house, we tend to separate crafts from The Arts; from a child's perspective, they are different things: "Crafts" are about creation, whereas "Arts" are more about appreciation.

Western New York is blessed with more opportunities to experience The Arts than can possibly be listed in one page, and many of these are free or inexpensive in the summer. In the summer of 2018, for example, I counted 103 separate free concerts held in the greater Rochester area alone! So be on the alert for these events, and, if possible, prepare for them in advance. (As an example: If a band is playing swing music at the town gazebo on Thursday night, for example, check out for the history of the Big Bands of the 30s and 40s. Talk about the role jazz played in American society and in the history of music, and how it led directly to the rock and roll era starting in the 50s.)

Or this might be the summer to enroll the family or individual kids in a weekly music class, or art appreciation class, or painting or voice lessons or the like. Look around; there are plenty of opportunities in any family-oriented community.

As for crafts, they are not my strong suit, but my daughters love them. So for us, craft time tends to be less directed and more of a creative free-for-all. I keep a variety of crafty materials in my craft closet, so that at any time I can pull out two or three types of material (say, pompoms, beads, and pipe cleaners) and let the girls' imaginations run wild. We also like the ready-made craft-in-a-box that actually produces something we can display: For example, from one such kit, Madison made a mosaic stepping stone that looks almost professional.

9. Give yourselves a pat on the back

Almost as important as doing these activities is savoring the fact that you've done them. Reviewing your accomplishments at the end of the day has many purposes for children: It reinforces the learning that has taken place, solidifying it in their structure of knowledge; it teaches kids that reveling in your accomplishments is a healthy way to motivate yourself to do it again tomorrow; and it lets them take a bow in front of the people whose opinion they respect most. Plus, if you keep a log of what you've done each day, at the end of the week or the month or the summer, everyone can look back at the list and be suitably impressed.

In short, you want to teach your kids that as they go through life, they have the option of enjoying their accomplishments and taking positive pride in themselves, or they can shrug these off and treat them as though they don't matter. Teach them to choose to experience the pleasure.

10. End the summer with a BANG

Even if you start with a great deal of energy and plans for a fun-filled Camp Mom summer, it is almost certain that the novelty will wear off by the end of July, and you'll find yourself slacking off a bit. It's natural; don't worry about it. Camp Mom isn't intended to be a burden! But you don't want to abandon Camp Mom entirely; make sure that at least one activity per day is an official part of Camp Mom, even if you creatively designate cleaning out the garage as that activity.

One way to keep up everyone's energy is to plan a big event for the end of the summer, a reward that keeps every camper's eyes on the prize. This can be as dramatic as a vacation at the Grand Canyon or as simple as a trip to a Friday night baseball game that has fireworks. What is important is that it is something for everyone in the family (including dad) to enjoy, something that everyone agrees on, and something that everyone plans. One of my colleagues suggests that this event can even include a kind of award or diploma ceremony, which we have never done, but which could be effective if done simply and elegantly.

To conclude

As you can see, organizing a successful Camp Mom takes a fair amount of energy and thoughtfulness. But I promise you that it will be worth it: Your kids will remember Camp Mom for the rest of their lives, and so will you.

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