No sooner have parents recovered from the Christmas holidays than it's time to lunge into the next winter rush: summer camp sign-ups.
Yes, it's the middle of winter. But a full-blown frenzy to book up June, July and August with education, adventure and athletics unfolded Saturday at Westridge School in Pasadena as nearly 5,000 parents and children attended a convention-like summer camp fair.
"If you are not here and on top of things with your boxing gloves on, you can't get into the camps you want," said Sharon Vassar, 45, of Pasadena as she charted her 11- and 14-year-old daughters' summer.
Working parents scoured the booths for summer camps with after-hours care. Determined parents want a summer of academic enrichment--more algebra, more science, more essays. Competitive parents want their children to be well prepared to take the ERBs, the ISEEs, the SATS, all acronyms for standardized tests for private school and college admissions.
"We feel like if you don't start planning early, you will be left behind," said Andrew Wong, 45, of San Marino, who thinks his son may be interested in a science camp this year. "You know that come January, it's time to start thinking about summer."
Then Wong stopped and chuckled, realizing he sounded a bit ridiculous. "It's sad, but we parents are all preconditioned."
Most kids just want to have fun.
"Can I go to drama camp?" one girl asked her mother.
The Westridge Summer Opportunities Fair, in its 10th year, has grown from a community service attended by hundreds to a regional attraction drawing thousands, mainly from the San Gabriel Valley area, but also from as far away as Santa Clarita and San Diego.
About 100 summer camp vendors attended from throughout the country, promoting programs from the exotic (sail the Caribbean, make a motion picture in New York) to the strictly academic (study calculus at Stanford University or chemistry at Polytechnic School) to the traditional.
"We actually sit around a campfire and roast marshmallows," the representative from Gold Arrow Camp in the Sierra National Forest told one mother.
The fair is viewed as the kickoff event of the season, with other smaller fairs taking place throughout California until mid-March. Most are sponsored by the American Camping Assn., which accredits U.S. summer camps.
The surge in attendance over the years and the fierce competition to get into many camps reflect several family trends, camp directors and child care experts said.
Today, 9 million to 10 million children nationally attend some kind of summer program. In the 1970s--when there were fewer women working--the numbers were 6 million to 7 million.
For some working parents the summer months present a vexing child care problem. As early as January, they have to start piecing together a string of summer school courses, outdoor camps and vacations to fill the 12 weeks.
While many camps begin accepting applications in January, most deadlines come in February and March.
"It's so hard to know everything months in advance," Vassar said, explaining that she was recently laid off and does not know what turns her life will take between now and June.
For other parents, the summer presents another opportunity to build resumes. Especially popular are university summer school programs for high school students.
A Stanford University Summer College representative said the program gets more than 700 applicants for its 350 slots and has turned to an admissions process based on essays and test scores.
But even younger children find themselves enveloped in summer academics.
Wendy Marks, director of Get Smart Tutoring Center, fills her classes with dozens of second and third graders "whose parents want their children to be on top of it."
"They want to make sure their kid is climbing the ladder the fastest," Marks said, adding that mathematics is among the most popular summer courses.
"I don't mean to sound cynical about it, but that's what I see ... structured time around concrete goals."
Psychiatrist Sees Too Much Pressure
These are the kinds of things that worry Heather Krell, a child psychiatrist and director of outpatient clinics at UCLA Medical Center.
"All the pressure, getting into the right summer camp, the right school, the right classes--parents out here in L.A. are far too concerned about status," she said. "How much pressure are we going to put on a 6-year-old?"
Above all, Krell said, summer should be a time to take a break from the school and achievement. The exception, she said, is the older youth who wants an academic experience.
Fueling the proliferation of camps are baby boomer parents with the cash to pay for the programs, which can run into the hundreds if not thousands of dollars for the highest-end travel camps.
Susan Lindgren of San Marino said she is going to encourage her high-school-age son to attend the three-week Costa Rica Summer Travel Program, in addition to soccer camp and scouting camp.