My idea of summer camp: wilderness, lots of free time, and not too many screens People who know me well will not be surprised to read this piece of mine Mercatornet just published. But I hope they'll still enjoy it! It only stung the first dozen times or so. “Mom,” they said, “you’re weird. You don’t let us do the same things our friends are doing.” Indeed I don’t… and when I do, I often regret it.For instance a few years ago when the eldest of my homeschooled daughters complained that I wasn’t enrolling them in summer camps like all the “normal” moms did. At the time the kids were five, three and one. I had full-time job working in morning television. My husband worked at the same TV station afternoons and evenings, which meant the girls were home with at least one parent.“You don’t need to go to summer camp,” I explained. “Summer camps are for kids whose parents work regular hours and need a place to park their offspring when there’s no school to send them to.”Eventually I relented and signed up the older two for a week-long half-day ballet camp. And what a colossal waste of time that was. (And money.) Each day they came home rattled and exhausted by the organized group games and relentless pace of same; apparently it’s a Rule of the Universe that day campers have to be kept hyper busy at all times. But the worst for them was that they didn’t learn any ballet at all.It wasn’t because the school was lousy. But summer camps force everyone to level things down, because they’re only good for business if the number of campers is high enough to make it worth their while. With a high camper-to-teacher ratio, the only activities that make sense are group ones in which each individual kid learns very little.I’m not blaming the dance school; businesses do what makes sense to them. But I do think parents ought to make different choices, and not just because it’s silly to spend $400 a week to have your darlings play buddy ball.I have nothing against summer camps where kids go to a cabin somewhere wild pretending to like carbonized marshmallows and pooping in a hole. Those camps are awesome, and so are specialized camps for very serious and already committed kids who want to hone their artistic or athletic skills with highly respected champions and low student-teacher ratios – assuming you can afford it. What I don’t like are the generic, “no experience necessary” day camps run by easily overwhelmed teenagers. You know, daycare pretending it’s soccer.I know parents have the best of intentions. They want their children to be exposed to a variety of activities and interests, because they believe it increases their chances of getting into the right colleges and finding employment that’s both fulfilling and lucrative. Wouldn’t want the kids to “waste” their time in the summer now, would we? Yes but.Just last week the New York Times reported on a story about Asian-Americans suing Harvard for rejecting them despite all their achievements in favour of what they claim are less deserving students from other minority groups. The Times interviewed Michael Wang, among others, who couldn’t get into most Ivy League colleges even with a plus-que-parfait resume combining crazy high academic scores with all the right kinds of extracurricular activities, including years of piano and being in a choir that sang at President Obama’s inauguration. (You can hear him tell his story in the audio section of this article.)I wouldn’t call his a misspent childhood. Children do need to be exposed to a wide variety of activities and interests. But trying to maximize every minute of their lives in highly structured situations where they are prevented from failing and learning tough lessons, and never have free time in which to exercise their imaginations and learn self-direction to avoid boredom, is not the answer. Summer camp kids do get exposed to golf, soccer, karate, or drawing, but their exposure is at best skin-deep and the pace is too frantic. It’s a lot of not much for the money.To become the best version of themselves they can be, and be successful according to their own parameters, children need freedom to play, discover and imagine. They also require a healthy dose of empathy on top of a solid academic foundation. Children need freedom from the drudgery of highly structured activities. They need long unorganized hours to run around, play outside in the dirt, get their knees scraped, catch bugs, and learn real cooperation, problem-solving skills and responsibility.Better summer activities for them would be to help those in need. Every town and neighbourhood has a list of service projects in need of volunteers; everything from cleaning up public parks to spending time with the elderly or running errands for the bed-ridden.Giving children a summer of freedom punctuated by genuinely helpful projects would require most parents to rethink their own schedule. Maybe they need to take more time off, maybe they can get together with a few other parents and arrange for each one to take the others’ kids for two weeks. Obviously this kind of overhaul takes time and effort – and possibly a few sacrifices as well. But the payoff is real and not just for the kids. And so are the savings.After that one experience with the ballet school I swore off summer camps in favour of plain old free time and volunteering. When my kids want to explore something new, we find sources of information (books from the library, online tutorials, videos), get supplies, and get cracking. Not only are they learning at least as much about their new interests as other kids do in summer camps, but they’re also learning to teach themselves new skills instead of relying on someone else to spoon-feed them knowledge, which is bound to come in handy later in life.I am pleased by the results so far, and now when they call me weird I smile.