(Janell Genovese / For The…)
The 4-year-old had climbed onto the roof with his older cousins. More kids had taken over the kitchen to cook dinner for themselves. There were nine children total, four rooms in the house, just one bathroom — and no video games. For many adults, this would be a test of wits. But for Joan Brackin, 64, it's just another day at grandma camp.
Some parents may send their kids to sleep-away summer camps, but Brackin's three daughters bring their children to Grandma's for seven structured days of learning, playing and family bonding. Think of it as the usual visit with grandparents but with a schedule of activities and outings not only to keep the children occupied, but also to help the generations connect in a way that isn't possible through e-mail or Facebook.
"When my husband passed away, I was concerned how to keep his memory alive," says Brackin, a special education teacher in Grant City, Mo., who considers herself a bit of an Auntie Mame eccentric. "I just want to keep a little check on my grandchildren. I was trying to come up with a way so that they could come together as cousins and give me something positive to hold on to."
Brackin's teacher instincts help: Her camp is centered on a theme. Last year it was gems and minerals. This year she thinks it will be land and volcanoes.
Brackin shows videos and teaches lessons about the topic. Each night of camp, different cousins host a tea party or themed dinner based on a menu they create. Brackin gives them a crisp $100 bill to use at the grocery store, so that they can learn the value of money (and yes, she counts the change afterward). Dinner is served on a table that the kids have learned to set properly with Grandma's hodgepodge of cups and dishes.
On the last day of camp, the kids perform a play they have written about what they have learned. Despite the structure, the week definitely includes some grandma-style spoiling.
"If they want ice cream for breakfast, they can have it," Brackin says.
As relatives live farther apart, budgets remain tight and families look for economical ways keep kids occupied, camps like Brackin's are becoming more common, says Georgia Witkin, senior editor of Grandparents.com and a professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Plus, says the grandmother of three, it helps that people are becoming grandparents at younger ages.
"The average age people become grandparents is 48," Witkin says, referring to results of a 2009 Grandparents.com survey. "If you become a grandparent around 48 and you live until your late 80s and early 90s, you're grandparenting for half of your life."
For parents, little can beat the peace of mind that comes from knowing that a child is with a safe guardian, says Ruth Himan, 59, a Chula Vista resident who spent Thanksgiving week running her first grandma camp for four of her 12 grandchildren. They focused on genealogy, and Himan documented their adventures on GenealogyIsRuthlessWithoutMe.blogspot.com.
For grandparents hosting children on spring break or planning a camp for summer, here are a few tips from Brackin and Witkin:
•Open the camp to the older kids. Brackin welcomes all of her grandkids who are out of diapers. Once they reach 13, they become her "counselors in training" and help care for the younger kids. Brackin says the high-school-age grandchildren help to maintain a well-supervised environment, but for safety reasons, other grandparents will want to limit their camps to a smaller number of children. Witkin adds that her grandchildren spend the night at her house "once they are old enough to talk so that they can tell me what's wrong."
•Try grandparent camp before aunt or uncle camp, Witkin says. The playing field is level because all the children have the same relationship to the authority figure; there are no sons and daughters mixed with nieces and nephews. Plus, she says, "grandparents raised the children's own parents and there's a compatibility of child rearing."
•Keep the projects geared toward subjects that interest you as well, so you're participating as well as supervising. A bit of a geology buff, Brackin had her grandchildren make a papier-mâché globe and study the Earth's layers. Witkin told her grandchildren about her days as a high school basketball star while beating them in a game of horse. Avid tap dancers Lenore and Neil Stoller, both in their 60s and residents of Southampton, N.Y., took their granddaughter and her friend with them to the couple's tap lessons. Shelley Farrell Lamont, 54, of Coolidge, Ariz., holds an overnight summer camp out where she and her husband, Mark, teach on themes like wilderness skills.
•Keep activities short, and always plan more activities than you think time will allow.
•If you're doing something new, tell the kids about it ahead of time, Witkin says. "You tend to get a little more excitement and a little more control."
•Don't forget rewards. "Some grandparents think it's bribery, but I'm here to say it's an important education tool," Witkin says. "We give good grades, we give stars in school. Think of it as recognition, not payoff." The reward can be something the grandkids were going to do anyway, such as choice of dessert or what to have for dinner.
For the Record: Corrected: A previous version of this story implied that at Shelley Farrell Lamont's overnight summer camp, husband Mark teaches wilderness skills alone. Shelley also teaches.