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RISMEDIA, July 3, 2010—(MCT)—Summer camps offer time to play games, try new things and bond with other campers. But they are also expensive and not feasible for some families. But many parents have vacation time coming in the summer. Why not use that time off to have a camp experience and bond with your own family?

Jodie Lynn, an internationally syndicated parenting columnist who lives in St. Louis, says, “Creating an at-home camp environment is an excellent way to interact with your kids, learn how good their communication skills really are, find out things they become overwhelmingly interested in, save money and best of all, create lasting family memories.”

That’s what Susan Zimmerling of St. Charles, Mo., did two years ago when she opted for a summer camp at home with her two girls. A parent educator for the Francis Howell School District, Zimmerling knew the value of what she was about to do.

“Camp is all about building relationships,” Zimmerling says. “Camp allows kids to experience new activities and define their interests. They get a sense of freedom from daily life, which allows them to express themselves in different ways.”

But, let’s face it, kids become bored quickly, so make your at-home-camp different, educational (without them knowing it, if possible) and exciting. Here are some ideas to get you started:

First, pick a theme – Yours can be a theme for the whole week or a new theme each day. Consider a Hawaiian luau with water games and playing in the sand. Serve fancy drinks with umbrellas. Learn the hula, crack a coconut. Or try international day, where you learn about different countries and sample different cuisines.

Check your stresses at the door – Organize your camp early (plan activities, food, supplies) so that when the week comes, you are not a disorganized mess. “Keep in mind that the planned event should be fun and not necessarily sticking to hard, fast rules,” Lynn says. “Eliminate high expectations and stay flexible.”

Role playing – At some point, let each kid take the reins, even if only for an hour (say, they get to plan what you do for a craft or an outing). Zimmerling let her kids each have their own day to plan. “Role playing is an excellent way to enhance your child’s imagination, creativity and promote self-esteem,” Lynn says. “Leadership skills can become immensely polished through role-playing, or perhaps enlighten parents into intricate mini-details of certain areas where a child needs additional help.”

Make a t-shirt – Every good camp begins with a really cool T-shirt. Have your kids make their own by buying cheap tees at the dollar store and decorate with fabric paints or markers. Come up with a name for your camp and put that and the year on your t-shirt.

Circle time – A little structure will help get your day started. For younger kids, you can begin with a little reading or singing time. Go to the library the week before and choose books to fit your theme.

Nature walk – Make a scavenger hunt out of it. Create cards ahead of time with photos (or, especially great for early readers, words) of things they might find on the trail: a cardinal, a clover, a squirrel, a turtle, a brown leaf, etc. Have your kids mark off the item once they spot it.

Craft – Try to have a craft every day. It can be as simple as drawing a picture of the day’s activities or a little more elaborate like a keepsake box, decorated with everything from stamps and stickers to ticket stubs and photos.

Lunchtime – Make lunchtime learning time. Kids can learn a lot about following directions, reading and math by working from a recipe. Even if your campers are young, they’ll get a kick out of stirring some ingredients together. You could also use this time to introduce new foods to your kids. For example, choose an Indian food day and teach your kids about the spices that go into making those dishes. Or choose a new fruit or vegetable (maybe a papaya or eggplant) and make two or three dishes with those ingredients. Older kids could even create their own recipes.

Sports – Organized games are great. Soccer only takes a ball (you can make goals out of driveways or garage doors) and kids of all ages can play. Or try jump rope or hopscotch or even four-square. But if you really want to get creative, grab all your sports equipment—the bats, the nets, the balls, the hockey sticks—and put it on the lawn and tell your kids to make up their own game.

Sleep outdoors – For at least one night, consider pitching a tent in your back yard, or even in your basement. Build a fire (if codes allow) or use your patio fire pit, roast marshmallows and tell ghost stories.

At-home fun – Try something new, maybe horseshoes or badminton. Or go treasure hunting with metal detectors. Set up the sprinkler in your yard. Have a water balloon toss. Or set up a mini obstacle course.

Field trip fun – The zoo, local botanical garden, museums, farms, science centers, waterfront, etc. offer obvious choices for field trips. But also try some places you might not have thought about, such as an animal sanctuary or nature center.

Talent show – Cap off a great week with a talent show. You could have your kids sneak away and plan one for you, or you could help them put on one for the neighbors. It can be as simple as singing the alphabet or as elaborate as a one-act play. Either way, give them a box of props (try old hats, scarves, bags and Halloween costumes) and let their imaginations do the rest.

(c) 2010, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.