DIY Summer Camp, or: How I Will Probably Lose My Marbles This Summer

Game of Round the World with Nellie Bly It’s June, somehow. We kind of missed April and May in this neck of the woods, so now it’s June even though it FEELS like it should only be April and I am thus mentally unprepared for summer – or, to be specific, for NO SCHOOL.

It’s curious, really, because it wasn’t so long ago that I had both kids around all the time, and that was just … the way things were. Before preschool and elementary school started, there wasn’t a huge demarcation between summer and the other seasons, except that we could go outside more often and the pools were open. But after only a year of having one in school all day and one in preschool some days, I am loathe to become the sole source of activities and structure for the next three months. And before I come off too helicopter-parenty, OF COURSE I realize that my kids need to take charge of their own entertainment and learn to be self-sufficient and blah blah blah. Yes. Agreed. But let us also take into account that this is a seven-year-old and a four-year-old we’re talking about here, so while they’re actually better than most kids at entertaining themselves for long periods of time, that skill is only going to get us so far. Plus also, we have apparently hit the phase I have long been dreading, where playing together – which up to now they have been delightful at doing – means actually playing 30% of the time and bickering 70%. Which is making me 100% crazy.

I’m not gonna lie, I have had some panicked moments, thinking about the long days and weeks looming ahead of us. Previous summers I have coped by signing Ellie up for various week-long “camps” through the Parks and Rec system, and putting both girls in swimming lessons, and stuff like that. I wasn’t *totally* happy with that system – our schedule was never the same two weeks running, and I felt more like a chauffeur than a parent – but at least it gave some structure to our days and gave us something to look forward to. This summer, however, camps and swimming lessons are not an option; my teaching hours have been cut by 1/3 and that means we can pick either summer activities or preschool for Sylvia next year, and frankly, that’s a no-contest choice right there. (But thank you so bleeding much, shit economy and beyond-stupid adjunct teaching system.) So in planning for the upcoming summer, I basically have two options: go-with-the-flow and just let shit happen as it will, or plan something myself.

Now, under certain circumstances, I am happy to be a go-with-the-flow kind of person. Put me in a group of people trying to decide where to eat or what movie to see or who’s calling for pizza, and I am as mellow as you could wish anyone to be. I can take charge if that seems helpful, but I’m also more than happy to let someone else do the charge-taking. I am the very essence of chill. But when it comes to my daily schedule, I have come to realize that no planning = depressive slug-like behaviors on my part. I’m an extravert, so if I don’t get up and get out of the house I get weird, but I also tend towards extreme inertia, so I have to have a concrete plan, usually, if I want to be at all productive. Basically, I function like a second grader, except that I can drive and see rated R movies without an escort.

So when I came across this post on a family who did their own summer camp, I thought, hmmmmm. I wonder if some version of that would work for us this summer. The basic structure seemed simple: spend the mornings on “must-do” daily tasks like reading, writing, practicing a skill, doing a physical activity, and basic chores. Then spend the afternoons on a “daily adventure” with themes for each weekday: Make-It Monday, Take-A-Trip Tuesday, etc. There was enough structure to keep the week moving along, but also plenty of room for spontaneous ideas and play-dates and just sitting in front of the A/C watching a movie, sometimes.

Here’s where I should probably add that this is a level of parenting at which, in the past, I have been known to sneer. Which – have I ever mentioned my karmic theory of sneering? How it has been my constant experience that as soon as I sneer at anyone for any behavior – driving, dressing, speaking, eating, child-rearing, whatever – it is absolutely guaranteed that I will end up engaging in that behavior myself in the near future? Just to show me? So, yes, I have rolled my eyes at the moms who hand-sew individual Christmas gifts for their child’s entire grade, or who write inspirational notes on handmade paper for their kid’s lunchbox every damn day, or who devise fun-and-stimulating-but-also-educational activities for any school holiday or birthday party. I admit it. And part of that sneering has been a legitimate rejection of the perfect-mommy ideal that is pervasive on social media of all kinds – I mean, life is too short to stress out over individually monogrammed homemade sugar cookies for Valentine’s day! But another part of that sneering has been ugly, basic jealousy that so many moms seem to have their shit together so much better than I do. And for fuck’s sake, if making individually monogrammed sugar cookies is your thing, why the hell should I care? Whatever trips your trigger, right?

So I most humbly apologize for having sneered at Martha-Stewart-level moms in the past, and I hope this summer won’t make you sneer at me, because we are going all in with the DIY Summer Camp idea. ALL. MOTHERFUCKING. IN. Here’s how it’s gonna work.

In theory.

This is aaaaallll in theory right now.

Every weekday, we’ll complete a series of “must do” tasks: 20-30 minutes of reading; 20-30 minutes of writing; some kind of physical activity (biking, taking a walk, dance party, etc.); 20-30 minutes of practicing a skill you want to improve; at least two household chores (I’m still working on the list for this part); and one “extra” activity from a pre-approved list (this would be things like playing on the iPad or computer, doing math or reading games, playing a board game together, paint or draw, etc.) Most days we’ll do the “Must-Do” stuff in the morning, but some days it will get done a different times. To keep us on track with the “Must-Do’s” (myself included!) we’ll have charts where we can check off each activity as it’s done. Each category is worth 5 points; getting at least 25 (out of a possible 30) per day for an entire week results in a small reward. (Like going out for ice cream or renting a new movie or something.) If we can maintain our awesomeness over the entire summer (resulting in a collective total of points yet-to-be-determined) then we’ll do a bigger family reward (right now we’re thinking a trip to the Renaissance Festival in September).

In addition to the “Must-Do” tasks, every day will also include a “Daily Adventure” corresponding to that day’s theme: Make-It Monday (crafts!), Take-a-Trip Tuesday (excursions!), Watery Wednesday (the beach!), Thoughtful Thursday (helping others/learn something new!), Friendly Fun Friday (playdates!). The “adventures” can be as simple as making lemonade or running around the backyard sprinkler, or as complex as hitting the local water park or exploring a nearby town.

But Wait!!! There’s More!!!!! Because I have truly, deeply lost my mind, I determined that the above organizing principles weren’t sufficient, and we needed to have one unifying theme for the whole summer. And after pondering several options, I decided on doing a virtual “trip” around-the-world, meaning that each week, we’ll “visit” a different country, and learn a little bit about the language and culture and food and history. In fact, we will be emulating one Nellie Bly, who in addition to blowing the lid off of the abuses of the mental health institutions of her day, also (did you know this? I did not!) took on the challenge of making it around the world in under 80 days – which she did, coming in at a speedy 72 days total. Nellie Bly is awesome, y’all. And other countries are awesome. So Camp Nellie Bly will be all full of awesome, right?!?!?

I know. God help me. Even reading over this blog post is sort of making my eyes pop a little bit. But I have to say, it has actually been pretty fun planning the “curriculum” for this summer. That would be the teacher and researcher in me joyfully flexing their atrophied muscles. Brain cells! I am using them! Being a stay-at-home parent has its lovely moments, but it is also INSANELY BORING for way too much of the time, and I’m hopeful that one of the benefits of this plan is that it will keep *me* interested, as much as the kids. I also plan on not taking any of this structure too seriously. It’s there to make things easier for us, so if at any point it’s not doing that, we sure don’t have to follow it. I’ve been printing off projects and ideas and country factoids from the interwebz like a crazy person, and today I’m going to get some “passports” for us to keep track of everywhere we travel. We’ll make weekly trips to the library to get books and CDs about each country, and we’re taking full advantage of living in a biggish city that has things like a Swedish Institute and a Russian Art Museum and an Irish Fair and two Greek Festivals. Also there will be camp T-shirts because yes. But we’ll also be spending sunny days at local watering holes, and having picnics in the park and doing other summery activities, because those are important, too. And probably my kids will look back on this summer and roll their eyes at each other and say, “Remember that one summer when Mom made us do the crazy around-the-world thing? What was that all about?!” And I will just smile quietly, waiting for the day when they have small children and long summers, and they go crazy, too.

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