I want everyone to know that I loved summer camp. I loved every filthy moment of it, from slogging up the Presidentials with a frame pack, to singing "three cheers for the bus driver" to making homemade candles and leather bookmarks at YMCA Day Camp. I loved the movie Meatballs because it's about a summer camp. I went to day camp at about age 8, and overnight camp at 11.
However, I am not sending either of my boys (age 5 and 3) to any sort of summer camp whatsoever. Why would I deprive them of such a rich experience? Here in Westchester camp, like preschool, is something "to be expected" of well-to-do parents. There are swim camps, nature camps, ballet camps, and full-on everything from archery to arts and crafts camps that run from dawn until dusk. About 85 people have asked me lately where my boys will be spending the summer.
"In our back yard," is my answer. Although our house is a run-down dump with rotting holes and a 45-degree slant in the front porch (step lively!), we are lucky enough to have half an acre of property. This property has lots of grass, mud, a water spigot, a splintery old playset, a compost heap, a pumpkin patch, a strawberry patch, and a vegetable garden. It also has a long driveway filled with ruts and crumbling asphalt, just perfect for learning how to navigate a bike or a scooter.
Nature camp? Why bother when your property has a giant hedgehog, a raccoon, and a skunk in residence? Recently sighted: A pair of mallard ducks, strolling about the lawn. Also, most unfortunately, sighted: the nether half of a mouse, victim of the fat, fulsome hawk.
Really, I just want them to run like free range chickens. Let them dig up worms, and toss useless tomatoes into the compost heap. Let them pick the first raspberries of the season off the raspberry plants that we transplanted from New Rochelle. Let them strip off their clothes and piddle on the "pee tree" behind the decrepit old shed, and fire the hose at each other. After that, they can walk to the beach, or go throw rocks in the river, or get a slice of pizza in town.
This is what summer used to be about, and if every kid on the block rebelled against the overly structured "summer camp experience," what need would we have to pay a single dime—except for the ice-cream truck that rolls down the street in summer with astonishing regularity. Some parents in our neighborhood are going to do just that, I'm told. The kids will run wild, and the parents will sit on comfortable chairs and occasionally call out "Car!" to warn them from their ball play in the street.
I realize my neighborhood is unusual, and that my boys have each other—hence no need for others' company over the summer. They simply want to be together. Indeed, for some, summer camp represents child care while the parents are at work (an option I don't have with a one-year-old at home). Or it provides playmates for a bored child.
Aw, maybe I'm just complaining because I don't have the 10 grand it would cost to send both my older boys to a deluxe summer camp experience (where they would no doubt be separated because of their age difference). 10,000 dollars, people. One of my favorite summer memories was soaking the patio steps at my friend Sarah's house with a hose, and watching the toads creep out of the nooks and crannies in the stone. Then we would race to catch the toads while they hopped frantically hither and thither. Then I remember we played intricate war games in the back yard, with forts made of sticks and pine branches. Nary a parent in sight, and no end to the day.