March 22, 2010 in Features

A week away at Grandma camp lets family bond

Children learn, play and connect across generations
Whitney Friedlander Los Angeles Times
Staff illustration photo

Staff illustration
(Full-size photo)

Children who spend time with grandparents

•Have better social skills.

•Fewer behavioral problems.

•Get along more easily with peers.

•Receive important support in single-parents families, blended families and in families where parents are divorcing.

Source: Journal of Family Psychology

Kids had taken over the kitchen to cook dinner for themselves. There were nine children total, four rooms in the house, just one bathroom – and no video games.

For many adults, this would be a test of wits. But for Joan Brackin, 64, it’s just another day at grandma camp.

Some parents may send their kids to sleep-away summer camps, but Brackin’s three daughters bring their children to grandma’s for seven structured days of learning, playing and bonding.

Think of it as the usual visit with grandparents but with a schedule of activities and outings not only to keep the children occupied, but also to help the generations connect.

“When my husband passed away, I was concerned how to keep his memory alive,” says Brackin, a special education teacher in Grant City, Mo., who considers herself a bit of an Auntie Mame eccentric.

“I just want to keep a little check on my grandchildren. I was trying to come up with a way so that they could come together as cousins and give me something positive to hold on to.”

Brackin’s teacher instincts help: Her camp is centered on a theme. Last year it was gems and minerals. This year she thinks it will be land and volcanoes.

Brackin shows videos and teaches lessons about the topic.

Each night of camp, different cousins host a tea party or themed dinner based on a menu they create. Brackin gives them a crisp $100 bill to use at the grocery store, so that they can learn the value of money (and yes, she counts the change afterward).

Dinner is served on a table that the kids have learned to set properly with grandma’s hodgepodge of cups and dishes.

On the last day of camp, the kids perform a play they have written about what they have learned.

Despite the structure, the week definitely includes some grandma-style spoiling.

“If they want ice cream for breakfast, they can have it,” Brackin says.

Tips for your own ‘grand’ camp.

For grandparents hosting children on spring break or planning a camp for summer, a few tips from Joan Brackin and Georgia Witkin, senior editor of and a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York:

•Open the camp to the older kids. Brackin welcomes all of her grandkids who are out of diapers.

Once they reach 13, they become her “counselors in training” and help care for the younger ones. Brackin says the high-schoolers help maintain a well-supervised environment; for safety reasons, other grandparents will want to limit camps to a smaller number of kids.

•Keep projects geared to subjects that interest you as well.

•Keep activities short; always plan more activities than you think time will allow.

•If you’re doing something new, tell the kids about it ahead of time, Witkin says. “You tend to get a little more excitement and a little more control.”

•Don’t forget rewards.

“Some grandparents think it’s bribery, but I’m here to say it’s an important education tool,” Witkin says.

“Think of it as recognition, not payoff.”

A reward can be something the kids were going to do anyway, such as choosing dessert.

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