Every February, I scream into the void – then start the process of signing my children up for summer camp.
I live in the Northwest suburbs, and the park district opens up summer camp registration just before Valentine’s Day every year. Like many parents, I spend hours prior to registration gaming out the strategy for my three sons — a seventh grader, fourth grader and kindergartener. This requires toggling between two screens to view the park district offerings for all three age groups at once, so I can make sure I choose camps in the same location to allow for one drop off.
My system involves a chart with every summer week broken out on the left, and the boys’ names across the top. Each box denotes their preferred camp and backup camps. My older two boys are spending two weeks at sleepaway camp, so that takes two weeks off my list. We’re on vacation for a week, so that’s another three spots I don’t need. I’m Beautiful Mind-ing our summer schedule.
A little over an hour later, I’m finished, and my dry erase grid is full of carefully scrawled codes. I am ready to compete against other equally desperate parents for limited access to child care.
Summer child care, after school child care — basically anytime a child needs to be watched and/or kept alive outside of 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. — is a vastly unmet American need. In Chicago and many of its suburbs, the park district remains much more affordable than private camps, sleepaway camps, or a nanny, if you can even find one. (While several of the bigger suburban park districts open summer day camp sign-ups in February and March, Chicago Park District doesn’t open registration until May 1.)
Candidates running for every level of government rarely bring up summer programs or after school care — both of which working parents really depend on to cobble together supervision that lasts through the workday. The notion of childcare as infrastructure is just starting to receive the bare minimum of national attention for the country’s youngest kids, but the need really extends much later, through middle school or even early high school.
Most weeks, I hope to sign my kids up for their beloved nature camp, which combines hiking, swimming and general outdoor fun and runs $214 per week, per kid for residents. It costs only slightly more for my oldest to be a counselor-in-training.
And so, like most of my brethren, I sharpen my proverbial elbows to secure my spots. Because there is no back up plan.
I am in position on my laptop and ready for registration at 7:30 a.m. It’s go time.
I start frantically typing my codes, which must be entered one by one. I begin with my 5-year-old, figuring the camps for his age group will be the most competitive. Once, twice, three times, it freezes due to system overload. I yell “Nooooooo!” to no one in particular, but at least it awakens my sons, who need to get up anyway.
I type in a code, get a spinning wheel of death that signifies that the system can’t keep up with demand, and sign a waiver. This process repeats over and over. Another waiver? Please, let me sign a blanket waiver. For these kids. For my grandkids. For any kid whose grubby little face I have ever beheld. TIME IS WASTING.
Later, a friend tells me that she adds every camp to her waitlist beforehand and then chooses from that menu when registration day comes around, which speeds up the process. I did not know this trick, because I am a failure as a human and a parent. I make a note of the strategy under February 2024 in my planner so that next year I, too, can be a sage among fools.
By 7:45 a.m., we’re already on two waitlists and still not done. Because I had been referring to the sign up as the “Thunderdome” in the days leading up to it, I am now quietly singing “we don’t need another hero,” to myself, reinterpreted as a dirge to reflect my dark mood.
All told, we’re on three waitlists — one already 33 deep with other summer camp seekers by 8 a.m. There’s a good shot we will get into these after the park district assesses the lists and hires its mostly teens and college-age staff, but I won’t know for sure until almost June. By then, it will be a scramble if anything falls through.
It’s not just me. “It’s harder than getting tickets to Taylor Swift,” says parent Erin Stevens, who lives in Park Ridge and has a seventh grader.
Another parent I know is 87th on the list for the highly competitive mid-August camp. These camps are hard to staff because many counselors head back to college or high school, so there are fewer of them in the dead zone just weeks before school starts. This stretch is an annual source of frustration for working parents.
This month was the first time parent Nicole Hrycyk experienced camp sign up. Hrycyk has a kindergartner and second grader and hired a nanny during previous summers. She is on 30 waitlists because she added extra camps in the hopes that at least one will come through each week.
“The only week I have complete care for our family’s needs is the three days after Fourth of July,” she says. “Every other week I am waitlisted for one or both children for aftercare, the camp itself, or both.”
She spent an hour in the morning yelling at her computer as it froze, overloaded, and spit out waitlist after waitlist. “I was telling everyone about it during my work meetings,” she says. “It ruined my morning. I could tell my blood pressure was still elevated hours later.”
There will always be those who tut “everything is too planned out now.” And they’re right. My friends and I spent most childhood summers riding our bikes to the pool, library and park. While we can lament that ʼ90s nostalgia for Doc Martens and flannels hasn’t brought unstructured summers along for the ride, that cultural setup just doesn’t exist in the same way anymore.
Even if I let my kids loose for 12 weeks, their friends are not similarly free range, so mine would end up bored, solo, and likely on screens instead of enjoying Earth’s yellow sun. And because Illinois has the highest minimum age latchkey law in the nation — kids have to be 14 to be left alone — it would also be illegal. (A bill to amend the age from 14 to 12 passed the state House but didn’t make it out of the Senate committee during the 2022 session.)
Like it or not, the kids have to go somewhere. And there just aren’t enough somewheres to go around. So until next year, I’ll just be grateful that I also didn’t have to secure spots in summer school.
Rebecca Little is a freelance writer currently working on a book about pregnancy loss. She lives in Park Ridge.