Smile Politely

Frugal summer

Each spring, parents begin the panic of summer. Spring break is only a tease for the three months of unscheduled chaos that is summer. As a parent of three (ages 12, 5, and 3), with experience in recreation and education, lots of people ask me what to do with the kids over the summer and how we pay for it. Here are a few ideas.



To Camp or not to Camp…that is the question

Both Champaign and Urbana park districts, as well as the YMCA, offer a variety of summer day camps with half-day preschool camps as well. I have sent my kids to some and worked in some. Obviously, it depends greatly on what you are looking for and what the staff brings to the camp (typically the camps are staffed with high school and college students).

Honestly, I was not impressed with the Champaign preschool camps. I felt they were very crafty with product-driven artwork. There is nothing worse than my preschooler handing me a ‘project’ clearly made by an adult with his name written in the top left corner. My easy-going daughter enjoyed herself enough but it doesn’t fit the personalities of younger ones.

I liked Urbana’s nature camps more since the kids were walking in the woods, learning about animals, etc. At the time, I knew the camp staff well (they were teachers) but staffing changes each summer. I recommend both park districts’ Special Recreation Camps for kids with and without disabilities. They are inclusive programs with staff that typically has more experience with development.

Prairie Farm offers many programs, both free and reasonably fee-based, that sound fabulous but my kids have not been interested in them, so I can’t recommend them one way or another. The Little Gym in Savoy also offers summer programming but at a price.

Unfortunately, since the programs only run in the summer, you can’t really check them out in advance. Overall, I’ve found that if you are looking for a good learning environment, the programs are too expensive for the quality. If you are looking for childcare, it’s a good deal. But each summer is different, and the programming and staff may be fantastic this summer.

Swimming Lessons

If your child does not like water or is fearful of it, I recommend park district swim programs for young ones. They play games and get them used to the water with fun and developmentally-appropriate activities.

If you want your child to be a young Michael Phelps (minus the drug habits), swim lessons for young children are a waste, in my opinion. Of course, it will vary from instructor to instructor (high school and college-age life guards) but I don’t feel like the kids learn a lot about strokes and kicks. Swimming is actually very natural and most people can figure it out on their own. Now that my daughter is older, 12, I would recommend learning how to really swim (e.g. freestyle, breaststroke).

Indian Acres, a private swim club in Champaign, also offers swim lessons but it is very expensive compared to the park district.

Pool Passes

If you plan to head to the pool on a regular basis of any kind (10 or more times over the 3 months), get a pool pass (they are on sale until May 22nd ). In Champaign, kids 3 and under are free. This is our major investment each summer. A pool pass allows you to go anytime and stay for any amount of time you want. If I pay $24 for a visit to the pool, we need to stay for awhile to make it worth it. A pool pass allows my 3 year-old to throw a tantrum or the 5 year-old to throw up after 10 minutes, and we can leave without feeling like I’ve wasted money.

Children’s Theater

Our community offers several theatrical opportunities for school-age kids. I highly recommend the Urbana Park District Youth Summer Theatre Production, which is doing The Sound of Music this summer. The program does take place in the evenings but the schedule varies for each role. There is no fee for the program but there is a script fee and often a costume fee. My daughter loves this program. There is a program for 6-9 year-olds and 9-18 year-olds.

The Champaign Park District offers a few programs as well but as camps that run during the day and come with substantial fees. This year they are doing The Jungle Book and High School Musical.

College for Kids at Parkland College

College for Kids is a series of individual classes for children grades 3-7 about a wide variety of topics from Lego building to baking to typing. I have found these classes to be hit or miss depending on the instructor. They do offer some financial assistance.

So What to Do?

In addition to the choices above, we enjoy doing any of the following on a random summer day:

  • We do park district sports such as softball or soccer (which I have had very good experiences with) or water programs that only run a couple weeks.
  • We go to the library for storytime every week and make several visits in between. Both area libraries offer many reading programs as well as special activities, parties, concerts, and movies.
  • We go to a gym that has a playroom and outside play space such as the Fitness Center.
  • We go to any of Champaign-Urbana’s many fine parks. Busey Woods is fantastic as well as Meadowbrook Park. Champaign Skate Park is also a new favorite.
  • We set up playdates.
  • We go to Prairie Farm.
  • We go to the beach, including the Indiana Dunes and Chicago’s many beaches along Lake Michigan.
  • We head out to community festivals, concerts, and farmer’s markets.

Overall, if you are looking for some kind of childcare or drop-off program for your kids, camps work fine. If you just want your kids to do something outside the house, the community offers a lot of options and many that are free.

And don’t be afraid to ask organizations about financial assistance. The park districts and College for Kids have financial assistance available to qualifying families. For camp programs, Child Care Resource Service (CCRS) may be able to provide child care subsidy.

Luckily, summer is a great time to find free activities because they are everywhere. You just have to keep up with your local newspapers, blogs and of course, Smile Politely, to keep up on them.

Related Articles