Growing up in suburban Washington, D.C., my recollections of summer involve endless hours at the community pool, biking by myself to and from my friends’ houses during the day, and playing competitive afternoon kick-the-can games at the end of my street. It was a different time. My mother, like most mothers I knew, did not work. We did not wear helmets while riding our bikes; heck, we barely wore seat belts. I hardly knew any kids who went to camp or partook in any sort of planned activities during the summer other than community swim team. Summer meant freedom from a set schedule and it was awesome.

Today, summer is quite different for most school-aged children. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center Study, 46 percent of all two-parent families with children under 18 years old have both parents working full-time outside of the home, up from 31 percent in 1970. For these two-parent working families, summer is still a 10 week or so hiatus from academic stress for kids. But it has now become one big childcare headache for many of their parents. These parents have turned to camps as babysitting lifelines so that they can keep up their daily work schedules which, sadly, change little despite the warmer temperatures. Demand for camps – any and all kinds of camps – has gotten so high that if parents do not plan ahead and start the enrollment process during the previous winter, they will be out of luck in summer time.

As if the stress of finding convenient camps and registering on time wasn’t enough, the price tags associated with many of these camps are far higher than what parents would typically pay for extended day programs or weekly babysitters during the school year. Non-profit day camps, typically the most inexpensive camp options, can range from $100 to $500 a week, according to the American Camp Association (ACA). For-profit day camps can charge upwards of $500 a week per child. The ACA notes that more specialized camps in math, computers, art, and athletics can range from $500 to $1000 per week, usually because they demand more personalized teaching and mentoring, which results in higher costs passed along to the parents. For those parents who choose to send their children to sleep away camp, the average cost associated with this experience is $690, according to ACA data. Sleep away camp costs can vary tremendously and can exceed more than $2,000 a week for some programs. All in all, a week of camp can cost parents as much as a month of after-care during the school year. All the money one thinks they are saving in the public school system is nearly eaten up by summer programming.

Camps are not just in demand for kids from two-parent working families. I have many friends who are stay-at-home mothers or fathers who are also booking camps for their children for large parts of the summer. There seems to be a fear that if a child is not constantly stimulated and kept on some sort of a schedule, they will lose any academic or social acumen they might have gained during the last school year or, worse case scenario, morph into a perpetually mentally and physically complacent individual. Camps are seen as another way to sharpen kid’s skills and keep them from not only falling behind, but charging ahead and becoming superstars in some areas. The increasing specialization we see with many youngsters in our society today often begins with camp choices made by parents for the summer.

Somewhere along the line, we seemed to have forgotten the immense value of free play – free time for kids to explore, figure things out for themselves, create their own entertainment, and, yes, possibly even get into mischief. While childcare needs and the growing need many parents feel to keep up with the Joneses are real reasons, whether good or bad, for camping children out for the duration of the summer, parents should strive to strike a balance between programming and play. And, not to mention, take advantage of the wonderful weather to spend quality time with their children outdoors.

I am one of those parents who uses camp largely as a childcare provider during the summer. Reflecting on my own experiences as a child, I cannot help but feel a bit guilty and uncertain about this choice. Until a number of societal changes happen involving more family-friendly work places and less helicopter parenting, this dilemma will continue. I do believe that it is critical to recognize that, like parents, children need some down time to just enjoy being a kid and explore their own passions and strengths on their own time, not only when the sun is shining and the pools are calling, but all year round.

By Casey Hassenstein