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Set summer schedule now

Jolayne Houtz Seattle Times

There are 11 weeks between June and September — and the race to fill them begins right now for the parents of many school-age children.

Finding summer camps and child care requires finesse, forethought, healthy cash reserves and strategizing that would test the skills of a military planner.

For Sarah Nicholson, executing her family’s summer schedule begins already in February and involves a spreadsheet to sort out summertime camp options for her 9-year-old daughter.

Last year, the Ballard, Wash., woman would surf the Internet for camp information, plugging dates, cost, location and transportation into the chart. Still, the family spent hundreds of dollars to send their daughter to four different camps for a total of seven weeks.

Nicholson talks over the choices with her daughter and tries to coordinate camp dates with her friends’ parents. The project takes parts of weekends for a couple months.

If you haven’t got it nailed down by April, she said, “you’re behind.”

“I dread it,” Nicholson said.

It’s a major investment for some families. A family with two children easily could spend $500 or more per week on summer camps — $5,500 for the whole summer.

Among the 1,500 licensed child-care providers in King County, Wash., who care for school-age children, their average summer rate is $135 per week, said Ruth Engle, parent-services coordinator for Child Care Resources of King County, an information and referral agency.

The least expensive programs tend to be run by religious groups or nonprofit agencies like the Union Gospel Mission or the Boys & Girls Clubs, Engle said.

Midpriced ones are run by organizations like Camp Fire USA, YMCA or some licensed child-care programs.

Spendy ones may focus on a specific skill or interest area — sports, computers or drama — and are offered by private schools or organizations.

Those specialty day camps may start at $200 a week and reach $500 or more. Overnight camps and those that involve travel can cost thousands of dollars.

Little is known about how the quality of summer care affects children’s development or academic performance — or whether cost and quality go hand in hand.

A study by the Urban Institute in 2002 found that child-care costs increase 34 percent during summer for higher-income families, in part because parents pay more for summer camps and enrichment experiences.

But child-care costs for lower-income families drop by 24 percent during the summer, according to the study, because they may rely more on informal care provided by family members or neighbors, or leave children on their own.

What’s clear is that low-income children tend to lose academic ground in the summer.

But it’s not clear whether spending less on child care by low-income families means those children are receiving lower-quality care, and whether that makes a difference when school opens again in September.

Camps of all kinds are growing in popularity — the number of day camps in the United States has grown nearly 90 percent in the past 20 years, according to the American Camping Association.

Some of those camps fill fast — long before parents have the issue on their radar screen.

Before making the big summer-camp investment, making sure it’s the right kind of camp is key.

“Even in the same family, one kid may be fine with doing something new every week while another may need the stability of a single caregiver,” Engle said.

Narrow your choices by considering your child’s interests, your family’s needs and your budget.

Some families start with a summer calendar and go week by week, mapping out different care arrangements and fitting in camps where there are holes, she said.

“If you’re trying to cover all your summer care through camps, that gets a little crazy,” said Marianne Scholl, community-relations manager for Seattle’s Child magazine.

“A lot of people pick a couple (of camps) every summer,” she said. Many parents “aim to match their kids’ interests, and it’ll be a highlight of the summer.”

Summertime experiences don’t have to be limited to camps. For older students, there is an increasing interest in volunteer work during the summer, “not just fancy camps you pay through the nose for,” said Elizabeth Atcheson, director of admission and financial aid at The Bush School.

That allows budget-conscious parents to save a little and lets kids have a meaningful experience “that’s not school but that is real learning,” she said.

Once you pick a camp or summer experience, make sure it’s a good fit for your child. Nicholson, the Ballard mother, said her daughter felt awkward at a sports camp last summer in which she was one of just a handful of girls.

“I wish I had researched that one a little more,” she said.

With safety increasingly on parents’ minds, Engle believes parents are keeping their children in organized child care longer than they used to, both during the school year and the summer.

“The idyllic summer of romping around the neighborhood on a bike with a bunch of friends may be a thing of the past,” agreed Scholl.

But kids may get little break in their schedule, starting in on summer camps almost as soon as school lets out in June.

Many families work toward a balance of scheduled time and less structured activities, sometimes by relying on informal care by family or friends.

Nicholson said her daughter made a special request last summer. For one week, she wanted the experience of “just being at home — no school, no camp, just barefoot summer.”

The family was able to accommodate her request to coincide with a weeklong visit by her grandmother — but “it’s kind of sad that it had to be a special request,” her mother said.

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