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Camp Mom

A summer's worth of fun for kids

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When my son was 14, instead of sending him to summer camp, I had a couple of his self-contained special-education classmates come to our house every day for crafts, science, academic work, play, and fun. Throw in some field trips, a bowling league, and free movies, and we had something I like to call Camp Mom. Follow this journal of our day-to-day activities, and consider it a template for organizing your own summer fun. For more help, refer to my step-by-step instructions.

Skip to Days 21-40 or Days 41-45.

Monday: Day 1

Snickerdoodles
Photo by Terri Mauro

Today was our first official day, but it was more of a planning day for the moms and a play day for the kids. The "campers" played a round of the board game Trouble and watched some of the movie Shiloh on DVD while the "counselors" strategized the bigger events of the summer: our own little bowling league on Tuesdays, free movies at the local cinema on Wednesdays, and a field trip every Thursday. Our planned destinations include a few different science museums, a Wild West park, miniature golfing, and a zoo trip.

After that, the kids played outside for a bit and we all went on a long walk. The last activity of the day was baking cookies. We made Snickerdoodles (pictured) and everybody seemed to enjoy it ... except my son, who was either overwhelmed by so many people in the kitchen or perseverating on the Shiloh movie, and stayed away from the baking. It may be a challenge to keep him with the program for our intended four hours a day, but we'll see.

One thing I usually do when baking with kids is use smaller measuring cups than the recipe calls for, so my associate bakers have to do a little grappling with fractions. It always surprises me how much trouble even my middle-school and high-school friends have answering questions like, "How many quarter cups in 1-1/2 cups?" I think baking has helped my daughter get stronger in that area. Now I need a similar trick for strengthening money skills -- it's going to be one of our major Camp Mom focuses.

Tuesday: Day 2

Bowling
Photo by Terri Mauro

Today started out with a mini bowling league at a local alley. We're getting a deal for two games a week, and at the end of the summer we'll get a little party and maybe some trophies. The kids enjoyed bowling together, although it looks like these low-muscle-tone teens would benefit from bumpers. We'll take up the alley owner's offer to put them up next week.

After bowling, we came back to our house for lunch, then had a homework period. The kids were surprisingly not-fussy about doing the work because, I think, they were all working together. It was maybe, a little bit, like playing school.

Next, I tried a science experiment -- the one where you mix baking soda and vinegar in a bowl and it fizzes all over the place. My son was really digging the pouring in of the vinegar, and we eventually went through a whole bottle. The experiment sheet from PBS's Zoom site suggested blowing soap bubbles and watching them sit atop the fizz, and one of our "campers" proved to be extremely adept at precision blowing. I'm not sure they gained any particular science knowlege, but they liked making a mess.

Afterward, I had them write about the experiment in some blank journals their teacher gave me for "camp" purposes. They have nice wide lines for unsteady writers and big boxes for drawing pictures. Again, I was surprised that they didn't fuss at all about having to sit and write. Looks like we're going to be able to roll out some good academic enrichment activities without fear, to keep those hard-trying brains firing.

Wednesday: Day 3

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Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images

Today was a short camp day; two of our "campers" had an afternoon appointment that couldn't be rescheduled, so we made it a half-day for everyone. Our morning activity: a free movie at the local monster-mega-movie-plex.

If you have an AMC theater in your area, see if they also have a Summer Movie Camp with free kidflicks at 10 a.m. on Wednesday mornings through mid-August. We picked up our free tickets a day in advance to be sure of getting in, and had no trouble getting a seat when we arrived at 9:45; there were four screens in the multiplex showing the day's free movie, "Happy Feet."

I had been worried that the place might be so overrun with large undersupervised camp groups that it would be too zoo-like for my sensory-sensitive son, but at least in this first week, when a lot of camps have maybe not gotten going yet, it was entirely tolerable. The hardest thing about it was the long line for the $3 kid-packs at the snack bar (small drink, small popcorn, bag of crackers, good deal), tended to by the slowest-moving young theater employee that I have ever seen.

The kids enjoyed the movie, and if we'd come back home with the whole crew afterward, I'd have had them write reviews and draw penguin pictures in their journals. That may be an activity for tomorrow's Camp Mom itinerary.

Thursday: Day 4

flatcrayons.jpg
Photo by Terri Mauro

Thursday is Field Trip Day, and this week our outing was to the Meadowlands Environment Center, a little slice of nature sandwiched between factories and the New Jersey Turnpike. There are lots of scenic trails through the marsh, with ducks and muskrats and egrets and a multitude of little water-hopping bugs as companions, and the kids were pretty interested in the grasses and wildlife and waterways. It would have been a really successful outing if it wasn't like 100 degrees outside, and we weren't all melting from the humidity by halfway through our mile-long walk.

It was about at that halfway point, too, that I realized that I wasn't just walking with hot kids, but with kids for whom the heat might pose a problem -- one of our crew has asthma, and the other two have had heat-related health issues in the past. Everyone made it back to the air-conditioned museum without incident, but if we come here again, I'm going to be armed with bottled water (and pick a cooler day).

The very small museum, which had some microscopes for examining tiny marine lifeforms, some larger representations of indigenous birds and animals, and various multimedia presentations, was a hit with the kids. Also with the moms, who got to sit down and enjoy the air conditioning.

After lunch, back at our house, we had the kids write in their journals about their Environmental Center trip (they'd already forgotten too much about yesterday's movie to do any reviewing). Here was my son's entry: "We took a walk to see what there was to see. We found a lot of interesting stuff. We found ducks, alligators, and a lot of other stuff like poop from ducks." The alligators, not so much, but he's probably right about the duck poop.

The day's craft was one I picked up from About's Frugal Living site: melting down crayon shards to make new multicolored crayons. We put the crayon in cupcake papers inside muffin tins, resulting in crayons (pictured) that look like some sort of fruit-flavored Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. While the crayons were in the oven, the kids did a little homework, then we pulled out the melted-wax wonders just in time for everyone to go home. They'll enjoy the cooled fruits of their creativity with some coloring tomorrow.

Friday: Day 5

papiermache1.jpg
Photo by Terri Mauro

Friday was messy craft day, or so it turned out. The plan was papier mâché, and when I couldn't find starch at the supermarket, I substituted the flour-and-water goop recipe on About's Family Crafts papier mâché page. It worked fine for sticking paper to balloons -- and for sticking flour and water to clothes, table and floor -- but it seriously freaked out one of our campers, who must have some sensory sensitivity to thickish liquids. She managed to get her balloon covered, but described it later in her journal as "gross." The first layer's drying now, and we'll try it again Monday with starch if I can find some.

After the goop and damp newsprint was cleared away, the kids did some homework, and then we made pigs in a blanket for lunch with hot dogs, cheese, and crescent rolls. After lunch they played some board games, wrote about the goopy morning in their journals, and it was time to go home. Our first week has passed now, and so far, I think it's going pretty well. The kids haven't been too bored or too uncooperative, and the moms haven't been too panicked or too uninspired. Can we keep this up for nine more weeks?

Monday: Day 6

backyard.jpg
Photo by Terri Mauro

Today turned out to be Play Outside day, by virtue of the fact that the weather was gorgeous, sunny but not hot, with a nice breeze. We'd planned to make popcorn and have the kids watch a movie on DVD, but you can't keep kids inside when the sky is that blue.

We started with a walk around the neighborhood, then took some indoors-time to continue our papier mâché projects from Day 5. As I mentioned then, the flour-and-water goop we used made one "camper" really uncomfortable, so I checked with About's Family Crafts Guide, Sherri Osborne to make sure that switching paste mid-project wouldn't hurt and then whipped up a white-glue-and-water mixture to try instead. That one made me a little uncomfortable with its stickiness, but the sensory-sensitive girl in question found it fine. We're still in search of liquid starch (do they even make it anymore?), and will try that for the final layer if it can be located.

More outside play time followed, then lunch and a little homework. After that, we just let the kids loose in our backyard. My son enjoyed wrestling with another classmate who was visiting us for the afternoon -- enjoyed it too much, if you ask me, and I wished I had a whistle for all the refereeing I was doing. All the kids had fun throwing a big red therapy ball around, and doing some outdoor building with big cardboard blocks. Unfortunately, my son, all revved up from the wrestling, was doing his best Godzilla impression, bringing merciless destruction to Cardboard Town. The kind of disruptive behavior most kids outgrow in preschool, he's still falling back on.

Sigh. Days like this make me realize how much work we still have to do on his cooperative play skills. This summer will be a good time to do that, as long as his wrestling friend doesn't come by too often.

Tuesday: Day 7

papiermache2.jpg
Photo by Terri Mauro

Today marked the second week of our Tuesday Bowling League. This time, we split the four kids onto two lanes instead of having them all bunched up on one, and it made so much difference. Bumpers helped, too, both in terms of rescuing gutter balls and increasing the confidence of those who throw gutter balls only because they're so worried about doing so. Bumpers take the pressure off. And waiting while one other bowler bowls, as opposed to three bowlers? Does wonders for keeping attention focused.

After lunch, we took a walk around the neighborhood, and then proceeded with the third papier mâché paste test. Flour and water freaked out one of our "campers," glue and water was fine for her but didn't go very far, and now, finally, we had a bottle of starch found at a monster-mega supermarket. And ... well, the starch freaked out my son. Everyone else found it fine and easier to use. Certainly smelled nice, and seemed to be less splashy and speckling than the flour and water.

Because interest in this project has been fading fast, we decided to forego the painting and just make the last layer colorful enough to call it a finished product. We ripped some giftwrap left over from Christmas into strips, and the final coat, shiny with starch, looks pretty nice. We're calling them holiday decorations and leaving it at that.

As is traditional, we also had the kids do some homework, and write in their journals. It wasn't a bad day, but ... if I'd sent my son to "normal" camp this summer, this would have been one of those days on which I got a note saying he was disruptive, or hit his counselor, or got into an altercation with another camper. He's definitely been scoodgy these last two days, jumpy and argumentative and hanging all over his friends in ways they may not actually like. And I'm following him around constantly, trying to nag him into behaving, which I know doesn't work.

Maybe this means Camp Mom wasn't such a good idea. Or maybe it's just the usual new-routine shakedown. In past summers at other camps, he's had a smooth first week and a bumpy second. I'm hoping that's where we're at now, and he'll get his behavioral feet under him soon. (Me, too.) At any rate, we have a day off for July 4 tomorrow. And, a houseful of friends and family. Maybe camp will seem calm to him after that.

Wednesday: Day 8

fireworks.jpg
Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Today would have been movie day, but it was Fourth of July party day instead, and a day off from Camp Mom activities. Instead of our daily camp crew, we had a different group of kids over, cousins and family friends, and my son stayed pretty cool. The cardboard blocks came out again, but no one seemed to mind this time if my boy wanted to kick them around, and I didn't hound him. It felt good to let him be, and there were enough loving adults around to make sure he was getting the attention and appreciation he needed. Our friends and family are pretty good with him, and he's good with them.

Thursday: Day 9

popcornart.jpg
Photo by Terri Mauro

Thursday is field trip day, and this week's excursion was to a miniature golfing place not too far from home. The kids played 19 holes and really seemed to enjoy it, despite the fact that the course was soggy from a rainstorm last night and retrieving their balls often involved fishing them out of a cup of water. The course was nothing fancy, no windmills or complicated holes, which made it just about right for this crew. We'll schedule miniature golf in for a second go-round this summer.

We ended the round of play with a little math exercise: I read each child his or her scores to add up, one by one, to reach the final number. There were a lot of hesitations and miscalculations as the numbers got higher, but all three golfers were able to make it through to the end with minor corrections. More fun than a worksheet page, anyway.

The craft for the day was popcorn pictures (pictured). The kids wrote their initials with white glue on a piece of construction paper, then stuck popped popcorn pieces to the letters. Finally, they colored around their designs with markers. The finished products are kind of neat looking, though I have some doubts as to how well some of that popcorn's going to stay stuck. Next time, more glue.

Add a round of "speech bingo," a game made for therapists where you have to guess a verb before marking it on your sheet; some computer time; and the traditional homework-doing and journal-keeping, and that made our day. A nice calm one for my son, leading me to hope that the transition bumps are over and he'll be a happy camper now. One day at a time.

Friday: Day 10

pizza1.jpg
Photo by Terri Mauro

Today we played video games and skipped homework. Does that mean my "Camp Mom" standards are falling down, only two weeks in? Nah, just kind of a hectic day with a late start and my niece along as an extra camper. She and my son were determined to play video games no matter what we had planned, so we hooked all the controllers up so all the kids could play together. It was ... um ... a turn-taking exercise! Yes! Social skills work, right there.

We did get a cooking activity in, with the kids making English muffin pizzas with sauce, shredded mozzarella, and sliced olives (see leftovers pictured). The meal was such a hit that we're going to try it again next Friday with bagels. We'll see how many different breadstuffs we can find for Pizza Fridays.

After lunch, we finally got around to the video viewing we'd been planning on and bumping all week. The kids chose Home Alone, and we made some popcorn and settled in. Although everyone enjoyed the movie, we all agreed that gads, the scenes where Kevin foils the burglars were awfully violent and uncomfortable. Kids, don't try this at home.

We wound up not having time for homework, but the journals must go on. My son's had a drawing of one of the Home Alone baddies stepping on a nail and saying "Ouch!" Glad he wasn't referring to anything that happened at our house this week.

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