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Sizzling Summer Programs
By Carolyn Tomlin

“Summer time -- and the livin’ is easy,” is the first line of a well-known Gershwin tune. Summer for some young children means long hours of daylight, which offers abundant opportunity for outdoor play, swimming with friends, neighborhood baseball games, picnics with family and sleeping until the sun rises high in the sky. Summer means fun and excitement--a time free from the ordinary stresses of the school year.

   However, children rarely appreciate fully the unstructured time. They often become bored and develop the “nothing-to-do” syndrome, and summer turns into endless hours of computer games or television viewing. For some lucky children, a couple of weeks of camp breaks up the monotony of a long summer.

   If you are like many parents, you must find programs where your child will be cared for while you work. Some youngsters attend day camps, while others attend weeks of scheduled activity away from home. Regardless of your choice, camps and summer programs allow children to make new friends and learn independence under the guidance of trusted counselors and staff. 


Full-Day vs. Half-Day Programs 

What are best - full-day or half-day programs? This question applies to the regular school year as well as during the summer months. The demand for full-day preschool services has increased enormously over the past few decades, largely due to two societal trends. First, more parents are working outside the home; both two-income households and single-working-parent households have increased. Second, there is a growing concern about the need to better prepare children for formal schooling. Many educators feel that children can develop school readiness skills more easily in a full-day setting where topics can be explored in an unhurried manner to accommodate the varied learning of young children (Jurkiewiez, Summer 2004).

   Having a summer plan for children is a necessity, both for single parents and two-parents working outside the home. The question: How do parents choose a summer program, long-term or short-term, that meets the needs of their child? Does the program provide a stimulating curriculum? Is there a strong parent involvement component? Does the location contain a safe and developmental appropriate outdoor play area? Does the organization provide for children with special needs? How are the staff selected and trained? And, perhaps most importantly, do parents whom have used the program previously recommended it?

   This summer, work with your child care provider to find a “Sizzling Summer Program,” one that helps your child grow socially, emotionally, physically and mentally.


Program Content and Organization

When searching for a summer program, look for one that provides a balance between the academic program, sporting events, and social activities (Callahan, 1997). A summer program which focuses only on academics neglects what we know about the importance of full development of the child. A well-balanced program will have an academic program that is engaging, challenging, and interesting, but it will also give children a chance to participate in physical activities, structured and unstructured social activities, and opportunities for both play and rest.

   Look for evidence that the program offers a challenge, but not one that is overwhelming. There should be a focus on learning about important and enduring concepts, an opportunity for dealing with abstract and complex ideas, but not while duplicating traditional schooling. Look for academic programs that include field trips, resource people, and computer technology for finding and discovering information. Look for a balance between small group and large group instruction.


Listen to Other Parents

Often the best recommendation comes from parents who have enrolled their child in a specific summer program. However, talk with several families to receive an unbiased opinion of the curriculum, staff and program, and how the center is perceived by others in the community.


Questions you should ask:

1.  Are parents and/or grandparents invited to visit?

2.  Does the program incorporate people in the community with interesting hobbies, crafts, or jobs to share with the children?

3.  Does the program require additional personnel (parents or extra staff) to accompany children on field trips or excursions away from the center?

4.   How does the child rate the program? Would they want to return for another summer?

5.   How does the program handle homesickness? Are children allowed to call a parent? Are parents welcome to check on the child?


Safe and Developmentally Appropriate Outdoor Play Area

During a budget crunch, outdoor play equipment may not be a top priority. And yes, playground accidents happen under the best circumstances. However, parents should ask to see the playground equipment and the outdoor recreation area before enrolling their child in a summer program.


Check for the following:

  •    What is the condition of the equipment? Does it contain rough edges or broken parts? 
  •    Is the equipment age appropriate for your child? Do young children use the same playground used by older children?
  •    Are there enough activities to accommodate your child's group, or do children stand in line in order to use the swings, slides or other facilities?
  •    What is the condition of the grounds? Do you see broken bottles or trash in the area?
  •     Does a fence provide protection from the street or surrounding area? Can strangers or neighborhood people wander onto the playground?
  •    What are the staff or teachers doing during outdoor playtime? Notice if they sit in a group and engage in personal conversation or if they interact with children. Are they aware of discipline problems that may arise and require immediate attention?


Activities for Special Needs Children

Can summer camps provide the same activities for all children? No. Can modifications and adaptations in physical activity serve children with handicaps? Yes. Could these ideas work for your child? Of course.

  •    A wheelchair-bound child, who has upper body movement, can throw, bounce and catch a ball in a group activity or circle game. Match a non-handicapped child with one who has physical disabilities for activities such as one hitting a ball and the other running the bases.
  •    Provide larger objects or locate the objects closer for visually challenged children.
  •    Provide a tape recording of birdcalls you might hear on a nature walk for children with perceptual or sensory deficit. Adjust the volume control and make it available when needed to accommodate these children as they learn to identify different sounds.
  •    Place a 20-lb. bag of topsoil on a table for a wheelchair-bound child. Cut several large “X” shapes in the top of the bag. Insert small plants (marigolds are easy to maintain) into the spaces.
  •    Place a hula-hoop on the ground when searching for small insects for children with limited mobility. This allows the child to search in one place instead of walking a distance.
  •    Play a listening and moving game for children with attention deficit disorder. Place objects on the playground or designate points to tag or run towards. For example: “Run to the end of the walkway and back one time.” “Hop on one foot.” “Crawl the length of three mats.” Listening, moving and focusing on directions will enable the child to learn while having fun.
  •    Provide large sticks of chalk for sidewalk drawing for children with a disability in muscle or hand movement (Tomlin, 2003).

All children enjoy these activities, but they are especially appropriate for special needs youngsters.


Staff Selection and Training

Before selecting a summer program, parents should know the child-to-counselor ratio. According to the American Camping Association (ACA), a camp should maintain a ratio of one counselor to every six campers ages 7-8. For day camps, the ratio is slightly higher (Knox, 1997).

   In addition, know the number of hours the counselors are on duty. You want to make sure they have sufficient time off so they are alert, energetic, and even-tempered when they are with the children.  If children are to be transported, ask about the driving record of bus drivers. 

   Ask, are the counselors are hired for specific talents or expertise in an activity? How are the counselors trained? Is there an orientation program? Are they trained in first aid, CPR and water safety?

   Does the program require a background check and doctor's statement that they are free of an infectious disease?

Entrusting your child to a summer program requires much thought and research. Remember, your child deserves the best.


Parental Advice for Summer Programs

At last, your child is ready for camp. You’ve shopped for summer play clothes, bottles of bug spray, perhaps even bought a sleeping bag, flashlight and camping equipment if your child is attending overnight. How are you preparing your child for a safe experience? The number one item is this: Keep the lines of communication open between parent and child. Use these suggestions for starters:

  •    Encourage your child to talk with you about any subject. Ideally, this should begin at an early age. 
  •    Teach your child what is appropriate and acceptable behavior as well as how to identify what are considered “do not touch” zones.
  •    Emphasize that they are NEVER to venture from the site alone. For years a buddy system was advised. Today, it is suggested that children and youth stay in groups of three. 
  •    Teach your child to not talk to strangers. Remind them that responsible adults do not approach children for help, they ask another adult. If a situation seems odd or questionable to the child, it’s okay to simply walk away. If someone tries to put them in a car, the child should yell, make as much noise as possible and run to safety. Once in an abductor’s car, their chances of survival decline. 
  •    Play “what if” games. Such as, what would you do if a stranger asks you to help find a lost puppy? Or, if someone asked you to reach in a car or trunk to retrieve a package because they have a bad back? 

There is a fine line between teaching children to use good manners and to help others while avoiding danger and staying safe.



As you search for summer programs, check with your childcare director, talk with other parents and listen to your child. Select programs that focus on the social, emotional, physical and mental development or growth. Hopefully, your youngster will enjoy numerous opportunities for learning during the coming months.


Carolyn R. Tomlin has been a preschool director, kindergarten teacher and has been an assistant professor of education at Union University in Jackson, TN. What I Wish It Hadn't Taken Me So Long to Learn is available at www.authorhouse.com or call 1-800-839-8640.


Web Directories for Summer Camps


An easy to use summer camp directory



Hot activities for celebrating summer, safety rules and summertime fun.



Callahan, C. (March 1997). National Association for Gifted Children, "How to Choose a Summer Program."

Jurkiewiez, T. (Summer 2004). High/Scope Resource "A Study of Full-Day and Part-Day Preschool Services." 

Knox, R. (March 1997) National Association for Gifted Children, "Questions to Ask When Researching a Summer Camp."

Tomlin, C. (March 2003). Early Childhood News. Outdoor Activities for Special Needs Children.