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6 ideas for summer fun now that camp has been canceled

By now the news likely has settled in — your best-laid plans for sending the kids to summer camp have been obliterated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Yes, it's frustrating. Understandably, the kids are bummed. Parents are super-bummed.

But all hope is not lost. The truth is that there are still plenty of ideas for salvaging summer camp — most for families with budgets at every end of the spectrum. The catch? None of the alternatives look anything like what you've known as camp.

Instead, options for filling the Covid-19-foot hole in your summer schedule incorporate a dash of virtual meetings, a pinch of social distancing and a hearty helping of creativity.

As long as the new summer plans engage your child's mind and serve up chances to think independently and forge new friendships, your child will still grow, said Peter Scales, a research psychologist and senior researcher at the Search Institute in Minneapolis.

"Summer experiences are all about relationships and interactions," said Scales, who studies summer camps and works out of his home near St. Louis. "You can't re-create the spontaneity of the in-person experiences they would have had but something is still better than nothing."

Here, then, are six suggestions for salvaging the summer without breaking the bank.

Attend virtual day camp

With tens of millions of Americans sheltering in place these days, virtual school and virtual work have become commonplace. Understandably, then, many day camps are also pivoting to roll out virtual versions — each with spots to fill.

In San Francisco, for instance, Rock Band Land, a popular weeklong summer day camp that focuses on music, storytelling, improv comedy and video, has virtualized the experience to offer a new product, The RBL Donkey Camp Show. While the pandemic-friendly camp enlists most of the same counselors as the traditional one, a few key aspects are different — namely that campers won't get to collaborate in the camp's iconic warehouse space designed like a castle, and that each day is four hours long instead of eight.

Co-founder Brian Gorman said the new vibe will be notably different, and programming will revolve around virtual meet-ups but also incorporate time for independent work and technology-free creation.

"The [new and old] camps will have many of the same elements, but also [be] so different that they'll almost be like something entirely separate," said Gorman, a former touring musician and preschool teacher. "It's a hard pill to swallow, but I'm also confident that we will create a unique and thoroughly engaging and creative experience for our kids."

Assemble 'camp' on demand

For those families who can afford virtual day camps curated entirely by counselors, there likely will be plenty of choices. For those operating with smaller budgets, embracing a more ad hoc approach may be necessary.

Here, the name of the game is do-it-yourself: Parents can book different camps on individual days and string together days or weeks of activities at a time.

One great option for this approach: Daily STEAMwork videos from the new National Children's Museum in Washington, DC. Every day since March 17, the museum has created videos to inspire children in science, technology, engineering, arts and math. There are now more than 60 videos on the museum website with a list of materials needed for each.

This summer, the museum also is launching new one-day virtual summer camps. Tuesdays are science days; Thursdays are all about erecting child-size structures with everyday materials.

Crystal Bowyer, museum president and CEO, said each experiment will be conducted live with a museum educator via private video, and that participating families will receive kits with supplies in advance of each session.

Another idea for on-demand summertime fun: Art Camp in a Box from a company named Art Classes for Kids. This Las Vegas-based outfit signs up kids from all over the country to participate in one-of-a-kind art projects. The experience revolves around themed boxes that include enough supplies to do 10 different art projects.

Owner Kim Bavington said that once kids receive their boxes and are ready to create, they can choose to watch a canned video tutorial, sign up for a live Zoom session or follow handwritten instructions.

"We really are trying to have something for everyone," she said. "There's a lot of flexibility in each box."

Embrace the quick fix

For parents of younger kids, full-on camp-style activities may be too involved. This is where quick-and-easy check-ins can save the day.

Think of these options as little interludes — short but sweet moments of magic designed to stoke imagination and give little ones a mental break from the humdrum realities of day after day surrounded by the same four walls.

Through the California-based Hope, Love and Magic, families can sign up for virtual character visits with actors dressed as princesses and characters inspired from fairy tales and iconic kids' movies. A 30-minute Zoom visit includes conversation, singing and story time. Co-owner Katie Kelley said the jaw-dropping wonder that kids experience during the chats is contagious.

"It's a scary and uncertain and upside-down time in our world," Kelley said. "If we can give a child hope and magic, even if only for a few minutes out of the day, [the child's] reaction can lift up everyone in the entire family."

Loni Ward, whose 3-year-old daughter has had multiple sessions with the princesses, agreed.

"Each chat brings a little normal back to her life and lifts her mood when she is bored with the monotonous days," Ward wrote in a recent email. "It's different from watching a show or movie or playing a game [because] the characters are able to make real connections."

Get out of town

Technically speaking, long-distance travel is against the rules until national, state and regional governments lift various orders to shelter in place. (The rules of each US state vary.) Once we're all free to move about again, however, vacation rentals may emerge as a safe and worthy choice for quick and easy summer getaways with the entire family. These getaways can take the place of camp.

There are several reasons vacation rentals are positioned to do well after shelter-in-place restrictions loosen.

For starters, most rental experiences are totally free of face-to-face interactions — reservations and payments are processed online; questions can be answered via FaceTime, email, text, or phone; and access can be granted via keyless lock entry or with a code to a lockbox with a key.

Second, some high-end vacation rentals come with a private pool, which families will want after nearly three months of sequestering at home.

Of course, cleanliness will be an issue. Liza Graves, president of Beautiful Places, a vacation rental company in California wine country, said that professionally managed homes adhere to high standards of cleanliness and follow guidelines set by industry organizations such as the Vacation Rental Management Association. Graves added that her housekeepers will wear gloves and face masks, and will use Environmental Protection Agency-approved products to disinfect surfaces as they clean.

"The safety and health of our local communities, employees, and guests is our highest priority," she said. "Guests also will be given cleaning supplies so they can maintain a safe environment [on their own]."

Check your rental company's refunds policy in case there's another wave of Covid-19 infections in your area or the area you're visiting. Also read through its policies for guidelines if you get sick.

Join a reading club

If you live near a public library (spoiler alert: many of us do), there's a good chance your kids will have the opportunity to participate in a free and age-appropriate virtual reading club this summer.

These programs encourage students to practice reading and embed that reading in social situations, according to Timothy Shanahan, founding director of the University of Illinois at Chicago Center for Literacy.

"Many of us read or watch a show on television because we are interested in the content, but often we do these things because they connect us with [a] group," said Shanahan, who is now distinguished professor emeritus at the university. "Studies of motivation show that one of the big motivators is this kind of social connection — we tend to come to love things that are positive socially."

Shanahan said parents should play an active role in evaluating the parameters of any book club, and that they should investigate everything — the content and difficulty levels of the books, and the maturity level and dynamics of the group.

In this age of social distancing, he said it's good for kids to join with friends to stimulate discussion.

If you live in a community that does not have a local reading club, Shanahan suggested you encourage your child to work with local librarians or reading teachers from elementary and middle schools to create one.

"Local libraries, even if they don't have such a program, would likely put together some useful reading lists by age and in some cases could offer discussion guides," he said.

Get a little help from your friends

At the very minimum, experts suggested that families consider the forthcoming camp-less summer as an opportunity to come together and tap the knowledge and resources of their respective communities.

Put differently, 2020 is shaping up to be a great year for "Neighbor Camp."

Unlike regular camps, which pay teenage counselors to share knowledge and monitor children, these newfangled camps have no employees whatsoever — instead, many grown-up neighbors simply take turns volunteering to teach groups of socially distanced kids on subject matters that they know and love.

If your next-door neighbor is an architect, for instance, maybe she can teach the kids something about building design. If you're an excellent guitar player, why not share some basic chord progressions?

"The very best camps put kids together in groups with positive role models and guide them in open play," said Michael Brandwein, author of "Growing Great Qualities in Kids" and a self-described camp expert. "Just providing an environment for kids where they can interact with each other and discover their own is the best."

One idea for Neighbor Camp: Wrangle seemingly random objects from around the neighborhood, then put all the objects into a basket and have child participants use them to fashion a new game.

Brandwein, who is based in Lincolnshire, Illinois, said even with minimal supervision, this game's a hit.

"Play is one of the most important ways that young people of all ages develop," he said. "So long as your summer agenda challenges them to socialize and talk about it in a constructive way, they won't need camp to have a good time at all."

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