- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 9, 2006

A friend called me several months ago, alerting me to an opportunity to rent a camp in Pennsylvania over the summer. The state parks have a number of “rustic cabin” campgrounds that large groups can reserve.

Not exactly being an outdoors adventure kind of gal, I would not ordinarily respond to this type of opportunity. However, it coincided with the need for an educational training experience for a number of families from a number of states, and we discussed it and decided to go for it.

Unlike typical youth camps, we are choosing the “family camp” model. By encouraging parents and their children to come together, family camps eliminate a lot of the administrative difficulties that youth-based camps have, and have the added bonus of bringing families closer through the experience.

This is important for families who put a priority on the parent-child relationship. I have to say that I have rarely sent my children to lengthy youth-based camps or trips, for several reasons. Not only do these camps expose campers to others who may not share our family’s values, but they usually depend heavily on counselors and team leaders only a couple of years older than the participants. Add to that the normal levels of injuries that attend youthful activity under new circumstances, and you can see why many parents flinch from sending their children off to camp on their own.

The camp we are organizing is going to draw heavily on the involvement of the parents and young people themselves. There is no “staff” per se. Presentations and activities are being prepared by adults and youths. Each person will do a stint helping the camp’s cook in teams of three or four. The cleanup, trash collection and other maintenance tasks will be performed by our entire group.

With only a few buildings equipped with electricity, we are having to research and obtain lanterns and flashlights to get to cabins, toilets and showers after dark. Avoiding the local wildlife —especially the black bears that seek out foodstuffs — is another item we must plan for.

Since our focus is training and education, including lots of creative and performing arts development, we’re making plans for the best ways to divide up the day between presentations and practice sessions. We’re encouraging parents to be there, if not for the entire week, for several days, and if possible, to teach something while they are there. In this way, we’ll employ the talents of those proficient in gymnastics, music, nonprofit organization, health education, dance and other special skills.

Participants are helping even prior to the camp. Some are researching transportation routes and equipment rental. Others are creating lists of what will be needed for the programs, and for each camper to prepare for his or her own needs. Others are inputting the campers’ information into a unified database.

Protection from the weather is always a concern, and so is first aid, so several people are preparing emergency kits for the camp. Meanwhile, each person is tasked with preparing to teach some aspect of the educational material, and send in a questionnaire about their goals for the entire week.

Using this cooperative family method, we are able to put together an enjoyable summer learning experience with a twist for a fraction of what it costs to send a child to a typical youth-based camp. It strikes me that this same pattern works for a number of other purposes: domestic and international educational travel trips, work-study opportunities, and humanitarian service projects.

It’s funny that parents often pay to be separated from their own family members to do things that could easily be done together. We pay others to teach our children, help them explore nature, introduce them to new languages and cultures, and in the most extreme example, listen to their struggles and innermost thoughts. Taking back the position of chief guides for our own children cuts costs and increases connectedness. The family is more than an economic supply line for children’s survival; it is the source of instruction, emotional support and physical well-being. Home-schoolers are already aware of this principle, but all families can benefit from an integrated approach to summer vacations.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a freelance writer who lives in Maryland.

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