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Among the child-care options collected by parents in preparation for the final stretch of summer vacation, "parents' camps" are near the top of the list, right after grandmothers. It's an effort but it pays off, and some parents even say they enjoy playing camp counselor.

"The idea is to take the kids in turns, so each family has responsibility for all of the children once or twice during the two-week period," explains Nitza Bashkin, of Beit Herut. This is the third year that Bashkin's son Yonatan, who will enter third grade next month, has been in such a camp. Bashkin knows of at least four other similar groups in the area.

The main benefit of parents' camp is that it's free. Of course there are expenses but they are not excessive. The fact that the kids have all known each other for years is also a bonus.

"In previous years we met in advance to plan, and put in money and effort. Parents took the kids to a local amusement park, to a movie, to the pool. This year we felt that since the kids are older, we can cool it a little with the outings. Once a week is enough," Bashkin said.

Just desserts on Chocolate Day

Nonetheless, she explained that "all of the activities are centered around a specific theme. For example, we had a Chocolate Day, where we read a book on the subject and made desserts. Or an athletic tournament, with water games in the pool. One father took the kids to the beach and taught them how to surf. In another home there was a cooking day, and we've also done a crafts day. Each parent does the things he or she knows how to do."

What if the parents can't contribute of their own time? Ben and Bar Esh, a brother and sister pair from Tel Aviv - he's 17, she's 14 - run a successful science camp in their home that they devised for kids in primary school. Their parents provide moral support as well as seeing to the food.

Ben, who is in the physics track at Jerusalem's Israel Arts and Science Academy, a boarding school, wanted to make some money while giving children a chance to do what he himself loves most - science experiments. He did not expect it to be so popular.

"I'm a spendthrift when it comes to music," Ben said. "I love going to concerts and buying CDs, and that costs money. At the start of vacation I worked in a falafel stand, at the register. Then I did tutoring. But by my calculations, the camp is far more profitable. At first I calculated it according to five kids for five days, but the response to the e-mail I sent out to parents was so great that I expanded it, and also brought my sister onto the staff," Esh related.

Parent appeal

Apparently, Esh did not figure into his initial calculations the desperation of parents who have to work during the summer. The children have already been to two sessions of day camp, and the time has come for improvised solutions. The idea of parking them at the home of a classmate from 8 A.M. to 4 P.M., for a very reasonable price - NIS 375 per week or NIS 85 for a single day - and a high-quality program, definitely appealed to parents.

"We sat down and planned many different activities, my sister and I, before the camp began. We didn't come to it empty-handed," Ben said. "Every day, there's a theme. We planned it so there'd be one very interesting and appealing activity that focuses the kids around the table for about half an hour or an hour. Basically, we realized that kids mainly like to play with each other, and also to beat each other up. So for part of the day they really do play the games we organized for them. And we also spend time separating them. That's natural. But when we do one thing with educational content during the day, it's interesting for us and the parents are satisfied. Of course most of the activities are science-oriented. For example, we made a pretty sophisticated sundial, with a compass inside. It's 15 minutes fast but it's impressive nonetheless and it works in winter as well as summer," he added.

Bar Esh does not complain about having to get up at 7:30 every morning. But she also said that "Money wasn't a consideration for me." Instead, she said that, "I feel good about doing something meaningful. A few days ago I was talking to a friend on the phone and she asked me what day it was. I'm happy that I get up in the morning and that I have a goal and am not just killing time. The kids say they are enjoying themselves. It's good to hear that."