Summer’s almost upon us, and the scramble for summer camp places has begun. Where would we be without them, in an age where the idea of children occupying themselves and engaging in free play seems almost unpalatable?
But, of course, it’s not just about alleviating the potential for boredom. The leave entitlements of working parents rarely match the summer holidays’ duration, and so there’s a childcare role to consider. But are these camps the silver bullet they’re sometimes hailed to be?
I asked parents about the good, the bad and the “sure, they’re not even an option” aspects of children’s summer camps. The same issues cropped up – repeatedly.
Less expensive than giving up your job altogether, maybe, but summer camps are not cheap, for the most part, and prices can vary hugely depending on activity and location. And if you’ve a few children attending a camp, those costs add up – making them prohibitive for many very quickly.
While there is good value out there too, some of the more expensive camps reported by parents ranged in price from €140-€350 per child per week, for activities such as science, pony riding, drama, music, sailing and gymnastics. One parent said, “including a bus there and back, it would have been €1,000 for three kids for a week” for one art camp in Dublin.
A camp can be the place where children find their tribe or discover a love for something new – a situation where children can really come into their own
Another parent with multiple children said “aside from Cúl Camp and local GAA camp, everything else is crazy money”, making it particularly problematic if your child is not sporty, or not interested in the more mainstream team sports.
One parent calculated that “eight weeks of camp for two kids is €2,200″.
For those on low incomes or already struggling with the high cost of living, the outlay for any summer camps can make them totally inaccessible.
But the youngsters are gone all day, right? Not necessarily. Many camps run for just a few hours per day, meaning that, not only is the cost per hour more expensive, but parents who rely on camps for childcare still have a dilemma.
“Three-hour camps! Too short for working moms”, one mother replied. “Still need to juggle childcare when working full-time... most are 10 to 2pm,” another said.
And it’s not just the duration length that’s problematic, it’s the start and finishing times. “Who works 10-1?” one frustrated parent asked. “10-2. Who does that suit?” another questioned. “Someone has to be around to drop and collect,” another pointed out.
A few hours’ reprieve from juggling it all, certainly. But not without its own logistical challenges.
If you’ve tried to find a camp for teenagers lately, then you’ll know that the options are severely limited. This is particularly challenging when the summer holidays are a month longer for this age group.
Perhaps childcare is not the focus when it comes to teens, but for those too young to have any luck getting a summer job, the weeks can seem endless.
It’s not just parents of teenagers who can struggle to find age-appropriate camps. Some camps advertised as being suitable for up to 12-year-olds in practice often have few enough children towards the end of that age range attending. This means some pre-teens can find these camps a little less appealing.
There’s a market there. All we’re missing is the service providers.
Summer camps offer a fantastic opportunity to make new friends or engage in and enjoy an activity that’s unrelated to school work. They can be the place where children find their tribe or discover a love for something new – a situation where children can really come into their own.
But for children with additional needs or health requirements, parents say finding inclusive options can be challenging.
“There are so few options for those with additional needs,” one parent says, while another reports having overheard a camp leader ask a colleague “to take the handicapped kid for a walk”.
“I have a son with ADHD and have to pick camps very carefully,” another parent replied, with one adding that “access for neurodivergent children” was a problem.
Children who have to have an epi-pen or require medication during the day can also have difficulties accessing camps as camp leaders may not be insured to administer these, if required.
There’s the guilt of not sending the kids to fun-filled camps, and also sometimes the guilt of sending kids to fun-filled camps, due to work commitments. And when camp fatigue sets in, it’s only going one way.
With unemployment rates reaching record lows, the demand for camp places is likely to be high and locations don’t always suit
When the kids decide they just want to hang out at home and relax because it’s their summer holidays and they’ve already done several camps – but mam or dad has to work because it’s not their summer holidays – camps can suddenly lose their appeal.
“Trying to persuade them it will be great fun” was one parent’s biggest challenge, she said. “The guilt that you should be chilled and enjoying the summer with them, but work won’t let you,” was something another parent struggled with.
Enforced “fun” is not always the craic imagined.
Getting a place
With unemployment rates reaching record lows, the demand for camp places is likely to be high and locations don’t always suit. Securing that coveted place on a preferred camp is never guaranteed.
“The fact they book up quicker than my computer screen can bring up the booking form” was a source of frustration for one parent. “They only seem to have good ones in posher areas,” another replied. One complained that “most of the best ones are in bigger towns. We’re 20 minutes from the nearest big town so childminders can’t drop.”
“We’re in a country town. All the ‘good’ camps clash during the first two weeks of July,” one also observed.
Throw in trying to find a camp that’s suitable for the ages and interests of siblings, or finding one with availability the same week as your child’s friend, and your planning skills will be truly tested.