Each summer, Erica Groten saves money on summer camp for her son, Ethan, by enrolling him in an exclusive program with only one opening: Camp Mom.
Groten takes Ethan, 6, to places like the Natural History Museum and the Los Angeles Zoo, and organizes beach days with other families and their children. She plans to reprise her role as camp director this summer, creating educational trips for her son.
“We decided that financially, it didn’t make sense to send him away for the summer,” said Groten, of West Hills. “I think he would have a great time at camp, but it just doesn’t work for us. I can create a summer experience for him that would be on par with the camps.”
More parents this year are opting for low-budget alternatives to supplement or substitute for traditional summer camp, turning to backyard camps, mommy camps and round-robin groups where participating families take turns programming for their kids. The move lets families cut the often-hefty cost of tuition from their budgets and allows parents to give their children what some feel is the added benefit of a personalized schedule with mom.
Many Los Angeles mothers turn to Kids Off the Couch, a Web site and free, weekly e-mail newsletter, for tips on inexpensive summer adventures and kid-oriented “staycations.” Co-founders Sarah Bowman and Diane Shakin test-drive all of the day trips outlined on the site with their own children, often using favorite movies or current events as a springboard for educational outings that broaden kids’ horizons.
“Every week, it’s a movie or a book or something to get your kid’s attention, and then we tie it to something to do in the city,” said Bowman. “We’re connecting it to a theme, or to something that’s going on in the world.”
These so-called “popcorn adventures” might involve watching “Little Shop of Horrors” in preparation for a visit to the Conservatory Lab at The Huntington Gardens in Pasadena, or watching the documentary “Paper Clips” before a visit to the Museum of Tolerance to learn about Yom HaShoah. The Web site also offers suggestions for creating a “home curriculum” based on the themes explored in each field trip and conversation-prompters to make sure kids soak up the educational value.
“You could do a vacation in your own city, and not spend a lot of money, and have a lot of fun,” Bowman said. “You can pick and choose locations and create a pretty neat itinerary for exploring parts of your city you don’t really know.”
Kids can also have just as much fun doing activities at home, said Esther Simon, a professional home organizer and mother of seven children who hosted mommy camps at her Santa Monica house for more than a decade.
Families should first settle on a budget and then make that figure stretch throughout the week with reasonably priced outings and projects, she said. One day could be dedicated to paid activities such as going out to museums, movies or miniature golf. Another day could be reserved for in-home arts and crafts, such as making birdhouses, pencil boxes or beaded jewelry.
Holding a weekly cooking class for kids is entertaining and teaches life skills, said Simon, who would often let her children write up a menu of simple items — macaroni and cheese, pizza and cookies, for example — and then invite friends over to share the meal. “It’s fun to make your kitchen into a little restaurant, and it teaches independence,” she said.
Other mommy camp activities could include holding scavenger hunts at the mall or on the beach, playing games with sidewalk chalk, planting a garden or holding relay races at a local park. Families can even incorporate tikkun olam (repairing the world) into their camp curriculum by having kids volunteer at a hospital or home for the elderly.
“You have to start out the activities with them, and as much enthusiasm as you show, that’s how much they will get into it,” she said.
If both parents in the family work, Simon added, they can hire a local teacher or teenager to host a backyard camp for them. Five of Simon’s six daughters have hosted backyard camps — both for their siblings and for other neighborhood children.
One backyard camp with an educational bent will be offering themed, weeklong camp sessions this July for preschool-aged kids. Karyn Saffro, who founded the in-home preschool Berwick Buddies at her Brentwood house in January, is letting parents sign up for a full month of summer programming or take it week by week for a cheaper alternative.
Weekly themes include Aloha Paradise, in which kids will learn about Hawaii, the ocean, and make volcanoes as a science project, and Pirate Adventure, which will feature scavenger hunts and water play.
Saffro — a 14-year teacher who spent half her career at Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School — incorporates the Reggio Emilia instructional method, in which learning is directed by the students. Whatever kids want to explore — be it octopi or fire trucks — she facilitates their educational desires with books, projects and experiential activities.
“The fact that it comes from the kids keeps it interesting and ever changing,” she said. “Our Hawaii week could be all about hula dancing, if that’s what they’re interested in, or fish or surfing,” she said. “There are things I’ll offer and show them, and we’ll see where they take it.”
The whole month costs $900, and a single week is $250. The price includes a full day of programming and healthy snacks.
Parents still seeking a traditional camp experience have a range of options available to help defray the cost. Most local overnight camps offer need-based scholarships, or “camperships,” and discounts for early registration and sibling enrollments. In addition, incentive grants of up to $1,500 are available to families of first-time campers through a partnership between The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and the national Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC). For families who still feel they can’t make overnight camp work in the current economy, day camp is increasingly seen as a viable, less-pricey option.
Most of Erica Groten’s friends enroll their children in summer camps, but she maintains that not everyone should follow the flock.
“Every parent needs to find what’s right for them and their child,” she said.
To learn more about Kids Off the Couch, visit www.kidsoffthecouch.com. To learn more about Esther Simon’s mommy camp tips, visit www.traditionalhomeorganizer.com. For more about Berwick Buddies, visit www.berwickbuddies.com.