Though fond memories of summer camp abound, many parents these days are so burdened by the state of their bank account they can’t justify spending upwards of thousands of dollars on overnight programs for their kids.
The good news? Many of the activities offered at summer camps are easily adapted to the backyard or even indoors, allowing parents to bring at least some of the benefits of summer camp home to their kids.
Of course, children who camp at home with siblings and parents will not benefit from the experience of living away from family for the summer, but much of the excitement about camp is in the different kinds of experiences and the learning of new concepts. Many of these experiences and concept-heavy activities parents can provide their children right at home!
Alaina Rutledge, Core Curriculum and Program Extensions Manager for a summer camp program called Invent Now Kids, says she encourages parents to extend their camp activities at home. “There are a lot of things parents can do to give children open-ended experiences at home over the summer,” Rutledge says, “so it’s not just about following the rules.”
Here are some ideas to get you started:
Indoor Invention Camp
With a few recyclable materials and items from around the house, parents can easily create an invention camp in the comfort of their own home. Rutledge explains that an example of an at-home invention activity might be to take two games, such as Monopoly and Twister, and invite the children to create their own new game with new rules, using the concepts and ideas from both original games. “It’s amazing what the kids come up with,” Rutledge says. “These types of activities allow children to create and problem solve in ways that they don’t often experience.”
Another example of a problem-solving activity might be to create a bridge that spans the length of the bathtub so soap can travel the bridge and not touch the water. Kids use recycled materials to create their inventions and they test the inventions to see if they work to solve the problem. “They might test it and it might not work the first time,” Rutledge says. “We call this the test and retest stage. We believe that failure teaches kids what they’ve done wrong and how to improve things.”
At-home Arts Camp
Many arts activities can be explored at home on a shoestring budget. Parents of budding visual artists can stock up on “found art materials” such as leftover pieces of plywood (rather than canvas) or leftover paints from household projects, and workstations can be set up in the backyard for daily summer painting experiences. Or, older children can explore the woods to find logs that can be used for carving sculptures. Parents of musicians can take their children to the park with friends to start a drum circle using “found drums” such as empty paint cans or laundry detergent containers. Children can write, direct, and star in their own outdoor theatrical productions, encouraging friends and neighbors to participate. And these hands-on experiences can be supplemented with field trips to art museums, outdoors music concerts, or theaters in the park—many of which are free to the public.
Backyard Space Camp
Parents can create a backyard space camp by reading books about astronauts and watching age-appropriate movies to build background knowledge, and then providing kids with materials to make their own astronaut costumes and build their own space shuttles. Appliances can be recycled, taken apart, and knobs and buttons can be used to build control pads, or paper-mache can be used to build the rockets. This is an opportunity for children to divide responsibility and work together to complete a massive, perhaps summer-long, project. Field trips to nearby science museums or planetariums can supplement the camp experience, and online field trips to museums such as the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (which has a selection of online activities) can be both exciting and informative for children.
Neighborhood Nature Camp
Outdoor nature camps often offer such exciting adventures as whitewater rafting or hiking up mountains. Though these activities may be difficult to recreate at home, depending on location, parents can help children experience the outdoors by involving them in learning adventures such as bird watching, gardening, camping, and hiking. Children can sketch birds and plants, build large or small-scale dioramas of animals in their natural habitats, ride bikes through state parks, plants flower beds in the yard, or join a neighborhood improvement project to paint public benches, clean up trash, and plant shrubs. Community service projects are a great way to get children involved in the local community, build friendships with children and adults of all ages, and explore the natural environment of the local area. If nothing like this exists, consider creating your own community service project with neighbors and friends!
Weekend Camp Exchange
A weekend camp exchange with a few close friends of the family is another good way to let your kids foster relationships outside of the family and also learn about another adult’s expertise. Parents of children’s friends might be master gardeners or scientists or actors or professional basketball players. These parents might be delighted by the thought of creating a weekend overnight camp experience built around their area of interest, particularly when it means that their children will be able to experience a few weekends of camp at the homes of other local families.
Want a few more ideas for bringing camp activities home? Browse some of the renowned camp Web sites and see what they offer kids who attend the programs. Be sure to check out Invent Now Kids, Interlochen Center for the Arts, Space Camp (at the US Space and Rocket Center in Alabama), and Colorado Discovery Camp for more activity ideas.
And don’t forget about the oldy but goody—backyard campfires. There’s a lot to be said for family bonding over s’mores, counting the stars, and sharing campfire stories.