Need to Figure Out Plans for the Kids This Summer? Try a Summer Camp Co-Op

Two kids jump off a dock into a lake.
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Summer camp doesn’t come cheap. Parents can end up doling out thousands of dollars to keep their children occupied while school is out.

However, some families find a financial break in organizing their own summer camp cooperatives.

In a cooperative, or co-op, a group of parents collectively provide child care for their children over the summer. As puts it, parents generally take turns watching each other’s children, supervising activities similar to what kids might experience at traditional summer camps.

This informal arrangement keeps the summer fun without the summer-camp prices.

Families can customize their co-op to fit whatever works best for them. Some groups need only a week or two of camp, while others need the camp to last all summer. Some parents restrict the co-op to close friends or family members, while others are open to setting up an arrangement with neighbors or co-workers they know only casually.

There’s no one-size-fits-all plan for forming a summer camp co-op. Here’s how one set of parents made it work for them.

Taking Summer Camp Into Their Own Hands

Olivia Delgado, 5, plays at a playground during co-op camp in Chestnut Ridge, New York, in 2012.
Olivia Delgado, 5, plays at a playground during co-op camp in Chestnut Ridge, New York, in 2012. Olivia’s mother, Vicki Larson, helped organize the co-op camp with friends and neighbors. Photo courtesy of Vicki Larson

Several years ago, a group of friends and neighbors in Rockland County, New York, decided to develop their own summer-camp co-op.

“We found ourselves looking at the summer — 12 or 13 weeks of no school — and the cost of camp being unaffordable for most of us for that length of time,” said Vicki Larson, one of the parents who organized the camp.

Her daughter was 5 the first year of the co-op, which continued for three summers.

Larson said the original idea was to get about a dozen families to participate, alternating houses each week. The host parents would take a week off work to lead the camp. But that wasn’t ideal for everybody, so instead they ended up hiring their own camp counselors: parents, college students and teachers on summer break.

Larson said parents took turns hosting the camp in their homes, and the kids also spent time in neighborhood parks and at other local venues. Like a traditional summer camp, the children spent time doing arts and crafts, playing outside and exploring nature.

“One week, they would go to the pool every day,” said Adam Gorlovitzki, another parent. “One week they would go mountain hiking.”

Each family paid about $225 a week to cover the cost of the camp counselors, food and supplies — about half the cost of traditional summer camps in the area.

4 Tips for Setting Up a Summer Camp Co-Op

With a little planning, you can recreate a similar summer camp co-op that fits the needs and desires of your family. Here are four things you need to know.

1. Decide Who Will Be a Part of Your Summer Camp Co-Op

The Rockland County, New York, group mostly included children who attended the same school, although some were friends who just lived in the same area. They ranged from preschoolers to early elementary school students.

Gorlovitzki said it was great for the kids because they already had friends in the camp, and favorable for the parents because they got to select the teachers and could weigh in on camp activities.

When creating your own summer camp co-op, consider your child’s friends and classmates. Keeping it to one narrow age group will make it easy to plan age-appropriate activities. Choosing families who live in the same neighborhood or close by will make drop-offs and pick-ups a breeze.

Children sit on a thick tree limb in a forest somewhere.
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2. Choose a Location (or Locations)

Larson recommended putting a lot of thought into where the camp will be held. The places should be child-friendly, the hosts must be comfortable opening up their homes and there needs to be enough space to accommodate all the children, she said.

“Kids need a variety of activities during the day, so you want to make sure the space lends itself to [that],” she said.

“It makes sense to not commit to one location if it’s someone’s home because you really are kind of taking over their space,” added Leslie Laboriel, another of the camp’s organizers. “It’s nice to be able to move [the camp] around a little bit to give [host parents] the opportunity to have their homes back.”

3. Figure Out What You Want to Do

One of the benefits of forming a summer camp co-op is that parents have a say in how their children will spend their days. Beyond reaching a consensus among other parents, the sky’s the limit in what you choose to do.

Larson suggested parents identify who is comfortable with doing the administrative tasks, organizing the spreadsheets and figuring out rates.

In planning sessions, organizers should think about how they’d like to structure the camp, what types of activities they want the kids to do, who will handle communicating with all the parents and how they’d like to deal with finances without making it cumbersome, Laboriel recommended.

Pro Tip

Pick up some ideas to fill the days from this list of 75 free summer activities.

4. Have Parents Sign a Waiver

Larson said it’s important to get all the parents in the group to sign documents absolving the host family and teachers of liability should any incidents arise.

Definitely have parents sign a waiver,” she said. “It’s not ironclad, but it gives you a little sense of security that if something happens, you’re not going to get sued.”

In addition, make sure the adults hosting the co-op or serving as camp counselors know about any allergies or medical conditions the children have. The parents should also all be on the same page about following COVID-19 guidelines. Summer camp is all about fun, but you want everyone safe and healthy, too.

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.