“Mom, I’m done eating. Can I go play now?”
I scanned the plate across the table and the excited seven-year-old next to it.
“Sure honey,” I acquiesced. “Have fun.”
And with that, my daughter was out the door, on her way to fish. Or maybe swim. Or possibly make some sand art. Or play on the playground.
I wasn’t sure. And honestly, it wasn’t that important. I knew I’d find her later.
For now, I was content to sit and drink my coffee, stare into space and think deep thoughts. (Or finish my salad, clean up the fruit left on my kids’ plates and try to keep Teyla from eating the stray croutons under the buffet line. Take your pick.)
Such is life at family camp.
If you haven’t been to family camp – or intergenerational camp, if you’re feeling pretentious – don’t be fooled by the moniker. It most definitely isn’t camping. It’s more of a vacation designed to promote relaxation and family togetherness. And it’s a trend taking off.
According to the American Camping Association, the number of family camps has grown by a whopping 215% over the last 15 years. In comparison, the number of traditional, kid-centric overnight camps has stayed the same.
The reasons? They are as plentiful as fireflies on a summer’s night.
Affordability – It’s the Economy Stupid
Probably the number one reason families consider family camp is its affordability, especially when compared to a traditional vacation. My family just got home from family camp, and for our family of five, it cost a little more than $1,000 for an all-inclusive week of fun. That fee included our hotel-like room, our linens, two mid-week “cleanings” (to get rid of the sand on the floor and trade out towels), 15 fabulous meals and activities galore on a crystal-clear Minnesota lake.
Luxury family camps can run into the $4,000 range, but most middle-of-the-road camps can be customized to fit your budget. Need to save money? Choose a no-frills cabin with a bathroom within walking distance. Want more privacy? Stay in a lodge, where you’ll sleep on a real bed in the comfort of air conditioning. Either way, chances are good you’ll spend less for five nights at camp than you would for five nights at a hotel.
Togetherness – Focus on YOUR Family
This is your chance to leave the laptop, the iPod, the Blackberry at home and try social networking IRL.
Teach your kids to fish. (Or let your kids teach you.) Play foosball. Take out a canoe. Jump off the end of the dock. Build a sand castle. Attempt a ropes course. Sing some silly songs. Eat a s’more or three. Say “yes” when your kids ask you to push them on the swing or play UNO or read them a book.
It’s all about being together without the distractions of modern life. Don’t worry about making the distinction between quality and quantity. At family camp, you can have both.
Freedom – Kids Rule
Last year was our first family camp experience, and it blew my mind that I could release my children from lunch to go do whatever they wished without me having to worry about them. (Try doing that at Olive Garden. Something tells me they don’t mean it literally when they say, “When you’re here, you’re family.”)
Obviously, this depends on the age of your children – as I learned firsthand last week when I spent the majority of my time chasing my toddler off the fishing dock. But if your kids are at least five years of age, camp offers a taste of autonomy. Typically, the camp grounds aren’t big enough for them to get lost. Fun things to do are around every corner. And there is a plethora of adults watching them. Which segues nicely with the next point….
Counselors and Staff – Your New Best Friends
Most family camps come staffed with wonderful, wacky counselors who are there to help you and your kids have a great time. They do everything from lead the weekly variety show to lifeguard the waterfront to teach arts and crafts. Your kids will adore them, and you’ll love having an extra set of eyes and hands to get through the week. If you’re lucky, you might also end up at a family camp that schedules child-care hours, so the parents can be free to indulge in a nap, a ropes course or a water-ski challenge without having to worry about their little ones.
Choices – To Schedule or Not
Depending on your personality, you might want a week free of schedules and agendas. Or you might want something more planned. Family camp accommodates both ideals.
Our camp puts together a calendar for each day – 8:20 Flag Raising, 9:30 Chapel, 1:00 Water Olympics, 4:00 Canteen Opens – but guests are free to participate as much or as little as they want. There’s no pressure to put in your time just because you are there. After all, it’s your vacation. Make it fit you.
Returning Guests – The Real Reason It’s Called Family Camp
Sound ideal? It can be. That’s why many camps find that the same families return year after year. Spend a week eating, laughing and playing with strangers, and you might find yourself with some new friends.
Or you might bring your own friends. We first heard about family camp from some friends who were recruiting other families to attend with them. A big part of family camp for us is the lure of seeing those same faces each summer.
Some even use family camp as a mini family reunion. At our camp, there is an extended family who’s been coming to family camp for 30+ years. It’s a great time for grandparents to see their grandkids, cousins to reconnect with cousins and adult siblings to renew the rivalry (kidding) at a place where you can dictate the level of togetherness and personal space.
To be fair, family camp has a few cons to balance the pros. It can be difficult for a family with very young children to navigate the free time without the comforts (read: restraints) of home. Some parents might not be comfortable with their kids having that much freedom. And a few might be startled by the level of craziness camp seems to inspire.
But in the end, the fun of camp seems to knead the knots out of even the most stress-out family. And that’s the whole point of vacation, isn’t it?
You can see pictures from Kelly's week of family camp at her personal blog, Love Well. Please note that sand lip gloss isn't offered at all camps.