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Picking summer camps: You and your kids can be happy campers

Summer camps will keep the kids moving with activities indoors and outdoors. The best camps tend to fill up fast, so plan ahead to secure a spot for your child.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2004)

Summer camps will keep the kids moving with activities indoors and outdoors. The best camps tend to fill up fast, so plan ahead to secure a spot for your child.

As the end of school draws near, many parents are starting to ask themselves that annual question: What am I going to do with my kids for the summer?

Perhaps you choose the less complicated and certainly more economical route: You sign your child up for a summer-long city recreation program or St. Petersburg College's College for Kids (www.spcollege.edu; search "College for Kids").

As a veteran of six years of summer camp scheduling, my approach is a lot like a patchwork quilt. I take the summer weeks and I fill in each one by one.

I've done it this way mostly because I have a hodgepodge of out-of-town family members who want to see my daughter and that prevents me from committing to any single camp for too long. And a lot of the less expensive camps require a minimum of seven or eight weeks.

But it also offers an opportunity to give my daughter a diversity of experiences, and that's kind of what it's all about, isn't it?

With that in mind, I hope these tips will help you make it through the summer.

I typically start thinking about where to send my daughter in March, but even in early April, it's still not too late to find great camps for your kids.

So Tip No. 1: Get started early. The best camps fill up fast. There are opportunities for your child to create a salt marsh nursery (www.tampabaywatch.org), be part of a circus (www.great
explorations.org) or participate in a full-length production of Oliver or Annie (www.splt.info).

But if you wait until school's out, you'll be out of luck.

I typically start having conversations with the parents of my daughter's friends in March. We're looking for camps they can do together for one week, such as nature camp at Boyd Hill (www.stpete.org/boyd; click "Day Camps") or animal care camp at Clearwater Aquarium (www.cmaquarium.org).

If you are a working parent, coordinating with other parents is invaluable. Often, they too are looking for options and you can carpool to and from camp. If one family has a stay-at-home parent, better yet. They might be willing to back you up on one of those camps with hours that don't always jibe with those of working parents, such as the popular Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals camp at the organization's shelter in Largo. The camp gets out at 2 p.m. And incidentally, it's already filled for summer.

Unfortunately, not all camps are designed for the working parent. Many now offer care before and after camp but you have to pay extra and this can push already pricey camps out of reach.

For example, for $235 a week ($225 for Passport members), Busch Gardens in Tampa offers an adventure camp called "Super Sleuth" in which third- and fourth-graders not only ride roller coasters but learn the science behind how they work. That camp ends at 3:30 p.m. daily so if you are a working parent, you need to plan for someone to pick up your child. You can get extended care until 6 p.m. for an extra $75 but now you're up to more than $300 for the week (www.seaworld.org; click "Adventure Camps").

There are a number of camps that include care until 6 p.m. in the cost of the camp, such as St. Petersburg Christian School (cost $150 a week; see www.stpetechristian.org) or Wesley Chapel Karate (cost $179 a week; see wesleychapelafter
school.com).

Finding the right balance of camps can be a complicated affair. You're trying to provide your child with the best possible experience in a time frame that works and at a price that you can afford.

I'm willing to go for one of the more expensive camps one week if I can catch a break on one that costs less or have family members watch her other weeks. I also have an arrangement with another family one week every summer in which we share responsibility for our children. Each parent takes a day off to care for both girls. This is a good way to save money.

Most camps cost an average of $120 a week but some run more than $200 a week. City-sponsored camps are typically the least expensive. The city of St. Petersburg's recreation center camps charge $56 a week if you pay for all 10 weeks up front or $71 a week if you pay as you go. The city of Tampa's recreation centers charge $75 to $100 for the entire summer. The YMCA summer camps in St. Petersburg cost $92 a week.

Finally, I like to think of the summer camp experience as an opportunity for my child to learn something that she may not be getting in school.

For example, if your child goes to a school that emphasizes science or math, perhaps you should try a camp that offers dance (www.soulfularts
dance.com) or theater (www.americanstage.org).

These days, kids are so focused on academics in school I like to think of summer camp as a way to fill in the gaps.

Leonora LaPeter Anton can be reached at lapeter@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8640.

>>TELL US

What's your advice?

Do you have great ideas about caring for your children over the summer? Share them with other parents. Send your best tips to features@sptimes.com and please put "Summertime Kids" in the subject line. By U.S. mail: Sherry Robinson, "Summertime Kids," St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731-1121.

Picking summer camps: You and your kids can be happy campers 04/07/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 10:59am]

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