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Fun in the Sun: Planning Summer Programs
By Angie Dorrell, M.A.

Friends, fun, and sun—that’s what children, especially older preschool and school-age children, look forward to during the summer months. Children, parents, teachers, and administrators have distinct needs and expectations during the summer months that provide special challenges. As caring and responsible educators, it is our responsibility to understand the needs of our parents and children and address them within the definition of appropriate child development practices.

Summer has a distinctly different feel for most adults and children. For adults, their attitude towards summer may be driven by their own summer memories. Many children listen to their older siblings or classmates talk about their summer activities and aspire to have the same experiences. While the needs and expectations of parents, children, and educators overlap, there are some distinct differences between them that are addressed below.

What Parents Look for During the Summer
Whether parents typically care for their children at home or currently have them enrolled in some type of early childhood program, they face the issue of having to decide what type of program(s) to use, once school is out of session.

Most parents are looking for programs that are fun while providing a safe environment with other children their child’s age. Other parents are looking for their children to have learning opportunities or excursions to bridge the gap between the school year and the summer months.

Finding a program that is trustworthy and provides experiences that interest their child is extremely important. Parents are much happier with a program that their school-age child looks forward to attending and is excited to be a part of.

Besides the quality or type of program, the hours of operation, convenient location, appropriate transportation and cost are all concerns parents must take into account. Many programs charge additional fees for all day services with specialized camps typically costing more and involving additional travel time to the camp location.

As parents look for summer programs, they rely on word-of-month most often, talking with their neighbors, friends, child’s school teachers and school secretaries as well as listening to what their children hear from their friends. This continues throughout the summer months, especially if the program they initially chose is not fulfilling their expectations.

Parents may be considering the possibility of overnight camp experiences instead of, or in addition to, traditional day camp programs. In determining if a child is ready for an overnight experience, parents should consider if their child makes friends easily, adapts easily to new situations and people, is willing to ask adults for help and stays away from home for more than one night already (with friends or relatives). Typically, overnight campers are at least eight years of age.

Children’s Expectations and Needs
School-age children are more and more vocal about what they want and what they like to do. They are also becoming increasingly more aware of what their friends and schoolmates are involved in and talking about. Popular culture has a greater effect on the older children; they are more aware of movies, books, fashion and what is hip or cool.

The older school-age children want to be more and more involved in the decision-making process—both in determining what program(s) they’ll attend and then selecting the activities throughout the program itself.

School-age children are working to balance the need to “look cool” with their desire to follow the rules or structure. Gender differences may arise more often with this age group. This can have a direct effect on the type of program or activities to be offered.

More and more summer programs are including preschoolers. These children have a strong need for the safety of a structured, secure environment combined with fun. These children especially need to know they will be taken care of by loving, caring teachers.

Implications for Summer Program Educators
School-age program providers have a unique balancing act as they work to meet the parent, child, and employee needs. Staffing may be more difficult as families and staff go on vacations. Training all staff on how to work with children of various ages and recognizing the importance of safety and health is a prime concern. Keeping staff motivated throughout the summer months can be challenging – as they may wish they could have the time off to “play” or be with their own children.

Weather is more of an issue in the summer than during the school year. The warmer the temperatures, the more difficult it is to have extended time outdoors and meet the needs of growing, active school-agers.

Unique safety concerns present themselves as providers must be aware of and plan in advance for heat-related problems, providing appropriate refreshments, dealing with transportation, and activity-related injuries.

Finding appropriate techniques for addressing the unique needs of older and younger school-age children who may attend the same program also present themselves. Even going on a simple swimming field trip brings challenges when it may include a six-year-old who can barely touch the bottom of the shallow end of the pool and a ten-year-old who insists he can go off the diving board in the deep end of the pool.

School-age children and their parents appreciate and enjoy having appropriate summer excursions. Finding locations that are at an appropriate distance, reasonable cost, and still fun and enjoyable for the age(s) of children is important. Providing appropriate transportation with safe drivers and establishing problem-proof procedures for field trips is essential for the health and well being of the children and program. Programs must consider state regulations in regards to field trips. For example, some state regulatory offices require different ratios for different types of field trips.

The program must determine ahead of time what types of programs are best suited. Will the focus be on a particular theme or type of camp such as sewing or soccer or will the focus be on a variety of different kinds of activities that incorporate learning from different fields.

Recognizing the changes that are occurring with school-age children is essential to an appropriate, healthy program for children—especially during the summer months, when we spend more time with older kids. Providers must find a way to help parents, children, and staff have a less chaotic environment without forgetting to celebrate children’s fun and endless energy.

Communicating clearly with parents is important throughout the school year and provides a very important bridge between home and your summer program.

Regardless of the kind of summer program you’re involved, be sure to save time for eating Popsicles, running through the sprinkler, and laughing with a child!

Angie Dorrell, M.A., was the director of education for La Petite Academy, the nation’s largest privately held provider of early childhood education programs. She is also the proud mother of two young daughters.