As the parent of a 6- and a 9-year-old, Jen Swanson has mastered the art of summer scheduling. Right after Christmas, she starts gathering camp and activity information and is ready to pounce the moment camp registration opens at the start of the year.

“The competitiveness of getting into top-choice summer camps is insane,” the New Brighton woman said. “But I want to make sure they are being challenged and not just sitting around all day.”

In today’s overscheduled, overachieving, high-tech society, keeping summer carefree (and screen-free) is a challenge. For many parents in the Twin Cities area, the 12 or so weeks of summer are less about sleeping in and sunshine, and more about calendars and carpools.

Despite logging onto her two laptops, iPad and iPhone minutes before registration started at 6 a.m., Swanson was able to get only one of her sons into the coveted Battle Bots camp through the University of Minnesota. Three minutes later, the camp was full, landing her other son 13th in line on a waiting list.

As a result, neither of Swanson’s sons will get to attend their top choice camp, because “from a sanity perspective, I can’t handle two different drop-offs,” she said.

To improve her chances next year, Swanson said her husband will join the early morning registration ritual, each signing up one child simultaneously.

“This is what we are reduced to,” she said. “The level of stress I experience in January and February keeps me up at night.”

Lucky for the Swansons and thousands of other families in search of ways to fill their kids’ summer schedules, the opportunities are endless. With so many options, parenting in the summer can sometimes feel like a competitive sport, rather than the laid back summers that parents remember.

“I grew up in rural Minnesota, where I never had those opportunities to attend camp, so this is a very different mind-set for me,” said Darin Broton, an Eagan father of two, ages 6 and 22 months. “I also know that my son enjoys these things immensely, and he has learned so much — whether it’s through athletics or Scouts, it’s about building strong relationships and social skills.”

Then there are the weeks with grandparents, the family vacation and downtime to do nothing — all of that has to be scheduled, too.

To meet the growing demand from parents, camps in the Twin Cities area have increased their offerings. At Three Rivers Park District, families have more than 250 camps to choose from — everything from Fairies and Gnomes camp to “Survivor” camp.

“Our summer camps program has seen tremendous growth [more than 500 percent] over the last 10 years,” said Ryan Barth, the outdoor education supervisor. “People want outdoor programming in a safe environment where their kids can catch critters in a pond or meet a snake at a nature center.”

Meeting demand

Camp as day care is another reason for the boom.

“Parents need somewhere for their kids to go,” Barth said.
According to data from the Pew Research Center, dual-income households with young children in the U.S. have become more commonplace over the past six decades, going from 25 percent in 1960 to 60 percent in 2012.

YMCA Twin Cities also has expanded its offerings. As the largest day camp provider in the state, YMCA offers summer programs that range from half-days to full days with before and after child-care options available.

“At the end of the day, everyone wants to have well-balanced kids, and getting them out in nature, involved in different experiences, is something that parents look for,” said Diana Mulvihill, senior director of marketing for YMCA Twin Cities youth programs. “Parents are looking for ways to get kids away from the screen; they are so addicted to it and we’re realizing the detriments of that.”

Of course, a calendar full of camps isn’t for everyone. Between work, family vacations, logistics and financial restraints, adding summer camp may be too much.

After spending some time with camp guides, a notebook and calculator, Broton decided that less was more: “We’re only doing one camp per month to make sure our son isn’t overscheduled and we’re not going broke.”

Wondering how other families tackle the stress of summer scheduling? Read on for tips from local parents and camp directors.

1. Go outside the comfort zone
Involve your kids in the decisionmaking process, but also think outside the box of what they typically like to do. “Research shows that the more variety your child can get, the more resilient they are,” Mulvihill said. If you’re still feeling overwhelmed, talk to other parents about the camps their children have attended. Arrange to have your child attend the same camp as a friend. Coordinating with friends or neighbors can help with transportation, too.

2. Start early
In the world of summer scheduling, even the early birds don’t always get the worm. Popular camps with limited spots are coveted by kids and parents alike, and sometimes it’s the luck of the draw. To improve your chances, start gathering camp guides as soon as they come out — often as early as December and January. Block your calendar for the day registration opens.

3. Get creative with scheduling
If you’re lucky enough to have a job with flexible scheduling, consider adjusting your schedule in the summer to accommodate pickup or drop-off times. “There is a lot of shifting and scheduling,” said Twin Cities parent Stephanie Duggan. “We just piecemeal it together and hope it works.” While many camps have hours inconvenient for dual-working families, more are starting to offer before and after care hours. Other options: carpooling, bringing your kids back to work with you or enlisting the help of grandparents or a babysitter.

4. Look for discounts
Many summer camps require partial or full payment at the time of registration. 

“There is definitely a sticker shock factor,” said Duggan, who estimated that she will spend $4,000 on activities, day care and camps for her two children. Ask about scholarships and financial aid. Many camps also offer reduced rates for registering early and sibling discounts, too. Under IRS guidelines, day camps are considered a work-related expense and can be covered with funds set aside in a dependent care flexible spending account.

5. Resist the urge to overschedule
“Sometimes I think we create our own drama around summer scheduling,” Swanson said. “I have to step back sometimes. ... My kids would have a perfectly fun summer not doing programs that are so competitive to get into.”

6. Schedule downtime
Whether it’s a week with grandpa and grandma, a week of family vacation or a week of doing nothing at all, don’t forget to include time for what summer is all about: rest and relaxation.

7. Don’t assume it’s too late
While many of the more popular camps are likely to be full by now, there are many camps with availability. Barth estimated that 60 percent of the camps at Three Rivers still have space. And like anything else in life, Mulvihill said: “If you’re flexible, there’s a good chance you can still get what you want.”