Too old for child care and too young to work, children 11 to 14 need activities to keep them occupied during the long, hot summer.
By LOGAN MABE
Published April 30, 2004
With the end of the school year just around the corner, emotions run the spectrum in most families from gleeful anticipation to weary dread.
Kids can't wait to break free from the confines of the classroom, while their parents grow increasingly apprehensive about what lies ahead.
Nowhere is the schism more pronounced than in those tricky "tween" years, children ages 11 to 14 who feel they've outgrown traditional kiddie camps but are still too young to land a job or navigate the summer months on their own.
And for parents looking for summer activities for their tweens, there aren't a lot of viable options.
"Traditionally, child care is for kids up to age 12," said Laurie Bettinghaus, senior manager at the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. "Once you get into those tween years, where the parents might still think they need to be supervised, it really is difficult."
Granted, some programs exist, such as the school district's middle school summer camps and some limited programs offered at YMCAs. But getting tween-age kids to go is another matter.
"At that age, developmentally, they are really engaged with each other," Bettinghaus said. "There are peer pressure issues. The kids are much more difficult to engage. They're much more saturated with media messages."
Given their choice, most younger teens would be more than content to spend the summer sleeping late, watching MTV, trading instant messages all day on the computer, and talking on the phone for hours at a time.
And that's what many of them do when parents run short of creative alternatives.
"I would not leave my child at home alone, although some parents have to by default," said Bettinghaus, who is facing that dilemma this summer with her own 11-year-old daughter.
"We were talking about that this morning on the way to the office," she said. "What kinds of creative opportunities can I help provide for her?"
Karen Hough, eighth-grade guidance counselor at Ben Hill Middle School, said it's important for tween kids to have something, anything really, to keep them busy in the summer.
"I'm a strong proponent that kids need to be out there playing and having fun and letting their minds grow rather than being shut down," Hough said.
"When kids shut down for the summer, it takes them twice as long for their brains to get back in gear when they come back to school. Kids are like sponges and if you let the water dry up they're not as absorbent as they should be."
Whether it's a formal camp setting, or a series of improvised activities, Hough said tweens seek and need structure.
"The important thing for parents is finding out what are your child's interests? What can you afford? Sit down with your child and ask them, "What would you like to do this summer?' " Hough said. "You don't have to spend a lot of money to have enriching activities. A lot of time it just takes time, which can be more precious than money."
A lost opportunity
Parents and their tween kids used to have more alternatives when the school district offered universal summer school. But school officials ended the program in 2001 for lack of funding.
"When I was a kid, summer school at the elementary and junior high levels was a free babysitting service for parents," said Theresa Aucoin, a community relations specialist at Sickles High School.
"They had tutoring, arts and crafts, music, PE, just fun stuff. We'd go swimming twice a week and the greatest thing about it was the last week of summer school we would go to Hillsborough State Park for a whole week. "Talk about the good old days! I think our kids today are really missing out on those sorts of things."
In the absence of summer school, though, Aucoin has some other ideas for tween parents.
- Check out summer camp programs at area middle schools.
- Get the kids involved in summer sports camps.
- Find a place for them to volunteer to start logging community service hours required for Bright Futures scholarships.
- Look into programs at the YMCA especially geared for teens.
- And if they do stay home, set up a loose network with other parents to monitor the children throughout the summer.
"I think most of the kids just kind of hang out and that's okay if it's a home where there's a parent," Aucoin said. "But I think it's dangerous if the kids hang out all summer and the parents are at work."
If you can convince them to go, the school district offers middle school-based summer camps at 14 area middle schools. The camps run through June (with a few extending into July) and cost between $50 and $75 a week depending on enrollment.
Aimed at children ages 9 to 15, activities include recreation, computers, games, daily exercise, skating, arts and crafts, cookouts, gardening and educational themes. The sites are staffed with certified teachers.
"Because it's only one month, the kids don't get bored," said Joy Groetzinger, extended day care program manager.
The Bob Sierra Family YMCA also has a special program for tweens called Leaders in Training. Geared for students ages 10 to 14, the program lets kids serve as assistants to the regular camp counselors who oversee the summer programs for elementary school-age children.
"It's really more of a role model experience for them so they can come and give back and become staff once they're old enough to be counselors themselves," said YMCA district marketing director Leigh Scott.
And they get to have fun, too, Scott said.
The YMCA also sponsors the sports-oriented Camp Christina in Riverview. There kids choose from horseback riding, canoeing, archery, rock climbing, ropes course, swimming, hiking, orienteering, and other sports to fill out their schedule. Transportation to the camp is provided from local YMCA facilities.
Of course, some families already have built-in mechanisms for dealing with the summer dilemma. Children of divorce often spend much of their summertime staying with the parent they don't normally live with.
"That's the advantage of separation and divorce," said the Bettinghaus of the Children's Board. "You have the alternative of sending your child to the other spouse."
That's what Aucoin, the Sickles High School counselor, did for many years. "Their father got visitation," she said. "It was his problem for six weeks."