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No camps this summer? I found a way to make it work.

Jan 30, 2024Jan 30, 2024

My mom friends and I start planning for summer when there's snow on the ground and we’re packing away the holiday decorations — in January, if not before.

Camp sign-ups here tend to open in February, and you have to act fast to avoid the purgatory of the dreaded waiting list. Moms feverishly refresh the registration pages for art camps, sports camps, even ninja camp, credit cards in hand, hoping they won't be consigned to Plan B, a Plan C, a Plan D. The summer child-care scramble can be exhausting and incredibly expensive.

I’m one of the lucky ones now. I can ignore the countdown-to-registration emails because my kids, at 10 and 14, are over day camp. It's fine with me — if I never see another sopping wet tie dye shirt in a Ziploc bag, that's a win. On the flip side, I have no summer child care. I work from home, which helps matters. But as summer loomed, I knew I would need to find a way to balance the uninterrupted time I need to write with the attention they need and the fun I want to have with them. Deadlines are calling, but so is the swimming pool, the mini golf place, the day trips to state parks.

My friend Jen once called this "Camp Mom." I laughed. But also, I wondered how I would manage during these no-child-care summers. I can't take three months off from writing, editing and teaching. This work pays our bills.

Camp Mom started last summer, and I devised a plan: I’d wake up early and work in my office from 6 to 9 each weekday morning. I told the kids they couldn't interrupt me, but after 9 I’d be all theirs for the rest of the day. It was a compromise we could all live with. My son is an early riser, but he was perfectly happy to read or watch cartoons and get himself a bowl of Rice Krispies. My teenage daughter rarely woke up until after I’d opened my office doors.

That schedule only lasted two weeks, not because I couldn't get up that early, but because I found I didn't need to. I realized, after several days, that I was blissfully alone for chunks of time each afternoon while they were off with their friends or happily hanging out at home. They didn't need me to be the camp counselor all day.

I know this doesn't work for everyone. So many parents have to be at work outside of the house for specific hours; others may work at home but their children are still young enough to need constant supervision. Camp is expensive, summer is long, and single moms are doing heroic work with very little to catch them until the next school year begins. I know I’m lucky to have found a way to make it work.

I don't remember my parents "playing" with my sisters and me much, and I don't say that as a criticism. As my mom said, laughing, when I brought this up recently, "I had three kids so I wouldn't have to entertain you all day!"

In the 1980s, we didn't call this kind of childhood "free range," but that's what it was. There were no cellphones, so when we left home on our bikes, no one could reach us. No one could track us to see if we were indeed where we said we were going. Our parents had to trust us (and the world) while we were out, and they had to trust us to come home on time, often wilted and sunburned, our hair rough as straw and reeking of chlorine.

Our boredom often ignited our imaginations.

Once we had a giant scavenger hunt in our neighborhood, traveling from clue to clue in a ragtag gang on banana-seat bikes. We’d regularly play "Let's Make a Deal" — yes, after the old TV game show — in a neighbor's garage. Kids would bring toys they no longer wanted, and we’d lay all of them out as the "prizes." We’d spend hours, days, weeks rehearsing lip-synch and dance routines for the block party talent show, a highlight of every summer. (My sister Katie, neighbor Debbie and I won two years running. The grass skirts we made from green party streamers for "Don't Worry, Be Happy" were a hit.)

When it was time for us to come in for dinner, my mom would stand on the porch and call for us: MAAAA-GIEEE, KAAAA-TIEEE, CAR-LYYYY. And because we were certainly within earshot of her voice by that time of day — on our bikes in the cul-de-sacs, on a friend's trampoline, somewhere in the cold, muddy creek that ran behind our house — we’d head home.

I don't have to tell my kids to go play; they naturally gravitate toward a Gen-X, free-range summer.

And I think we all need it. Unstructured time and freedom allows them to be creative in making their own fun, and allows me to be creative in dreaming up ideas for my work.

Thankfully, in 2023 as opposed to 1983, I don't have to yell their names from the front porch. My daughter has a cellphone, so we can text. She and her friends can walk to restaurants, the bubble tea place, two coffee shops, three ice cream parlors, and an art house movie theater. They can ride their bikes to the pool or bum a ride from parents to the mall. We also spend a lot of time on our back patio together; she draws in her sketch pad or paints while I read or write.

My son doesn't have a phone yet, but he has a basic digital watch with an alarm he can set for himself. Sometimes, he and his friends play at our house; the backyard soccer goal is popular, as is our arsenal of water guns and freezer stocked with Popsicles. But most days, he plays at a neighbor's house, setting his watch alarm for noon, so he remembers to come home for lunch. He sets it to beep at intervals throughout the day, for periodic check-ins and to be on time for dinner. He always knows to be home when it's getting dark.

I also have a tool my parents didn't have in the ’80s: the group chat.

I’m on one with the parents of my son's friends, so I can text: Send Rhett home, please. Or: Do the kids want to come here for a water fight? They can text: Does anyone want to meet up at the playground? Or: Does anyone want to go to the pool? During these pre-cellphone years with my son, these check-ins and invitations are a saving grace. I can easily text: Anyone want to come over for happy hour on my patio? Or: Anyone up for a bonfire tonight?

It takes a village, and the village isn't just for my children, it's for me, too.

I’m on my back patio now, typing these sentences. I feel relaxed, not rushed, and the ideas come freely, as if they know they are welcome. My son will be home from his best friend's house any minute because the lunch alarm he set on his watch will beep. My daughter will come downstairs from her room, where this morning she's been sketching and listening to music. We’ll sit down together for lunch, and afterward I’ll finish this piece and send it to my editor.

After that? We’ll just see where the rest of the day takes us. My work is done until tomorrow. Adventures await.

Maggie Smith is the New York Times best-selling author of the memoir "You Could Make This Place Beautiful" and several other books of poetry and prose.