Camped out: the exit interview


During Camp Invention, Lily really got into reverse engineering washed up appliances.

When Lily was in preschool – and Neve was in utero – it dawned on me one day that complicated though our daily life often seemed, it would grow far more complicated when Lily aged out of year-round preschool, and we suddenly had to figure out what to do with her in the summertime. (I was spending my days in a newsroom back then, so my anxiety level spiked just thinking about this not-too-distant future conundrum.)

I asked friends with older kids what on earth they did with them in the summertime.

“We usually do camps, a different one each week,” one said. “So one week is Jedi camp, another is computer camp – things like that.”

I nodded in that way we all do when we’re taking in information and thinking “UH-UH, NO WAY AM I DOING THAT. THAT SOUNDS CUCKOO FOR COCOA PUFFS.”

But guess what? When the time came – Lily returned to her preschool for on-site “camp” the summer after kindergarten and first grade (I registered her for 2-3 camps then, for variety, and to dip our toe in the water), but after second grade, it became clear that Lily was ready, and needed to, move on. 

Yes, there’s a nearby private pool club – that seems to be a culture unto itself – that we may buy our way in to one day, provided we’re willing to swallow the not-cheap bond purchase, as well as the also not-cheap annual membership fee. But even then, I’d still need the time, the quiet, and the space needed to make my freelance work deadlines. The pool would ultimately be somewhere we might go after I pick the girls up from camp, not an all-day option.

So Joe and I finally had to acknowledge the truth that all working parents must face when they’re kids grow out of preschool: you know that crazy weekly day camp thing our friend told us about? Yeaaaaah. That’s probably what we need to do, too.

By now, of course, we’ve been at this a few years, trying different camps, and repeating ones the girls particularly liked; and since they’re now fiercely opinionated little creatures of 6 and 9 – you should hear the debates over what restaurant we should go to [eyeroll] – I decided I’d do a kind of “exit interview” with them, sharing a rundown of the local camps they attended this summer, and listing what they liked or disliked about each.

You should note, of course, we went as far as Dexter and Ann Arbor for a couple of camps, as well as Novi and Royal Oak, and the prices vary pretty broadly. While I certainly kept my eye on our budget, and didn’t want to get too crazy, we’re lucky enough to be able to splurge now and then on a pricey camp that I thought the girls would really love. I mean, with the down-sides that come with this wall-to-wall day camp summer schedule – a new, sometimes onerous batch of paperwork to fill out each week; always shifting drop-off locations and times; deciding whether to just camp out in a cafe when you have to drive a considerable distance from home – the big up-side is this: the kids get the chance to explore, in a low-pressure, short term context, a broad variety of activities and pursuits that they otherwise wouldn’t get to.

And they’re outside A LOT, which is also something I want for them in the summertime.

So now, while taking a moment to reflect, I’m going to toast myself with a cocktail or two, proclaim my early March(?!) camp registration efforts prescient and victorious, and go do a half-assed job at gathering school supply list items. Onward.

(If you’ve got perspectives to offer on local camps, be sure to leave them below in a comment. And for local parents just starting to find their way down this path – you’re welcome, and hang on to your hats.)



Lily tailored my show program at Encore.

What I just said about occasionally splurging for pricier camps? This applied to our first one of the summer this year ($300 each); plus, it’s in Dexter, so I had a 40 minute commute with the girls, and because the camp runs only five hours each weekday (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.), it just made sense for me to just hole up in the local cafe or library and work remotely.

Why was I willing to pay more AND contend with these logistics? Because I knew the Encore Theatre people running the camp were talented, experienced performers – not to mention kind human beings – and that the girls would likely get a lot out of their time with them. Sure enough, by week’s end, when they each sang a song as part of a camp showcase, they both sang beautifully and were remarkably poised and confident on-stage. (They also sang three group songs with everyone in the camp, performing with light choreography.) I mean, not to sound all stage-mom-y, but I cried through both of their numbers, so taken aback and proud was I.

Both Neve and Lily loved their teachers and said that they’d like to go to Encore’s camp again – weirdly, Neve said her favorite part was playing games like Poison Dart Frog – but Lily had one critique to offer. “I didn’t like the stretching,” she said, referring to the physical warm-ups everyone does together to get started. “I hated that.”

Um … OK?

Neve agreed she didn’t like the stretching, either, “but one thing I liked about the stretching was I could stretch a little more than Olivia [one of the instructors].”

Solid feedback, girls. Solid feedback.


This camp is HUGE, in terms of the number of kids and staff involved, and it travels to different locales in Southeast Michigan each week. Because the girls needed to go to Encore the first week, in terms of their age group, I ended up signing Lily up for the Novi week of Camp Invention instead of the Farmington Hills week.

So we walked into a Novi school that was teeming with kids, and Lily recognized no one. But it worked out fine, and Camp Invention actually ended up being one of Lily’s favorite camps this summer. “It was amazing,” she said. “I liked all the creative activities, and making the stuff and making new friends.”


Camp Invention was where Lily got this sweet bubble machine.

She liked the projects using recycled materials – at the staff’s urging, we’d brought in things like an old, nonfunctioning CD player for some “reverse engineering” – but she didn’t like “when it was really hot, and we had to go outside.” As camp issues go, this seems pretty minor.

The cost was $240, and while I was a little surprised that the kids weren’t encouraged to brainstorm about, and to attempt to build, an invention that does something specific – I guess the title of the camp led me to think that? – Lily answered my “Would you want to do it again?” with a decisive “Yessirree!”

RISING STARS (Neve only)

Held at the Farmington Players Barn, this theater camp teaches kids various games and gives them the chance to each play a role in an age-appropriate show that they perform at the end of the week (cost, $255). This year’s show was called “Good Manners,” and my memory is that Neve scolded some whiny dragons, and then she and a couple other kids sang a kind of “suck it up” anthem.

I’m paraphrasing, obviously, but you get the gist.

When I asked Neve about this camp, she mostly talked about playing games like “Kitty Wants a Corner,” which she explained to me in excruciating detail. I’ll never get those few minutes of my life back, people.

She certainly seemed to enjoy the camp while it was going on, but this morning, when I asked if she’d want to do it again next summer she said “no.” Why? “Because the first day, everyone got a pencil and paper and started writing, and I had nothing.”

Uh … not sure why this presumed oversight left such an intense impression on her, so take this with a big grain of salt. And she seemed to enjoy her brief moments on stage at the end of the week, for what that’s worth. (She earned a big “awwwwww” from the crowd when she, among the youngest in the group, stood up at the end of the show and announced, “My name is Neve, and I’m 5!”) But parents beware: expect to scramble to create some semblance of a costume for the show; and because that final show happens at 6 on Friday, the camp session for that day doesn’t begin until 1 pm, thus totally disrupting your usual workday routine, most likely. We worked it out, but I thought it only fair to give you a heads up.


We have a family history tie to this one, because Joe was once a camper-turned-counselor in this program, offered by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Ann Arbor.

Unlike when Joe was a kid, the camp now happens at a campground in Chelsea (the kids bus there and back from the JCC in Ann Arbor each morning), but both Lily and Neve love it. The counselors teach them songs that they sing together on the ride there and back, and while they’re at the campground, they get some swimming instruction in the lake each day (the thing they both ranked as their favorite part of camp); the older kids go canoeing; and they have a daily block of time where they can choose from a wide variety of activities.

Some weeks have a single overnight option, which the girls normally love. This year, however, a rainstorm kind of ruined things. The girls had to leave all their stuff out in the tents (which were getting drenched), and they all rushed into the yurt, where Neve slept and later woke up with dozens of spider bites on her hands, her arms, her face. (Not that anyone seemed to notice?)

The next morning, they bussed the kids back to the JCC, where they laid out their suitcases and random belongings on the grass in an attempt to dry them. Overwhelmed by all the stuff on the lawn, I left behind about 8 items between both girls – I made a pretty fruitful “lost and found” visit the following week – but we eventually got things squared away.

Not surprisingly, Neve’s experience in the rain, and then the yurt, didn’t leave the best impression on her, but she and Lily still ranked Raanana as one of their favorites of the summer. This is nice on two counts: it gave them a bit more immersion into the Jewish half of their identity, and it was among the more economical camps at $197 (early bird rate). We could do worse.


This is it. This is the one the girls both crowned their favorite, and Lily is actually asking if she could do two or three weeks of this one next summer. Created and run by the awesome folks at downtown Farmington’s Plus store, the cost is $209, and whether your kid has zero experience or lots, they’ll get instruction appropriate for them, and do some creative projects along the way, too.

The down sides are that it’s a 9 a.m.-3 p.m. camp – I always really feel that lost hour in terms of work – and if you have one of those cheap toy store skateboards (which we did), you’re out of luck. In order to do things in the skatepark (where the camp takes place, on 8 Mile), the kids really have to have a starter board that costs about $80. Yes, if you’re enrolled in camp, you’ll get a discount on them at Plus, but because I had no idea whether the girls would be into this, or be totally done with this activity by week’s end, I was pretty wary of jumping into that.

What did I do instead? I made Facebook work for me by posting something about borrowing a board or two that might be sitting in people’s basements. Only one we found that way was usable, but the Plus folks let Lily borrow one on most days, so we got through OK; and by week’s end, she was so excited, and had done so well, that she put up half the money for a new starter board from her allowance savings, and we bought one. (Neve, though she loved the camp, hates to part with her money, so she’s still on the fence.)

“It was awesome,” Lily said of the camp. “The teachers were awesome, and the skate park was awesome. … I loved going down the ramps, especially the big one, with my friend Lola.”

Neve loved her time in the skate park, too, including a beginner technique called “buttboarding.” She did have one criticism, though: “Something that was bad was that, to go to the bathroom, you had to walk all the way to the ice rink.”

For a 6 year old always in a hurry about this, that is an issue.


Tollgate Farm and Education Center, an MSU extension facility, is located in Novi and offers a number of camps. The girls went there for the first time this summer, checking out both Animal Week and Green Science, Tollgate’s “flagship camp.” (Lily had been interested in doing horse camp there, but that seems to fill pretty immediately.) The price is a little steeper than usual at $295.

I’d thought Animal Week would be a surefire winner – Green Science was more of a filler on an otherwise un-spoken-for week – but the girls, in the end, seemed to both prefer GS. Some of the animal care chores weren’t so thrilling, according to Lily: “Some were fun, but, like, watering the goats was just turning on the hose for a while, then turning it off. So it was boring sometimes, but you had to do that to get to the fun part. Like, Luke was the cutest goat, and we got to pick up the chickens.” Both girls also did “chicken chores,” which I love to say out loud. Often.

Neither Lily nor Neve were fans of Garden Kitchen (a part of every Tollgate camp, I believe), wherein they’re given the chance to taste foods made from items grown on the farm. Since my kids would like you to believe that they’re vegetable intolerant, this comes as little surprise to me. “She always made healthy things,” Lily complained. “Not everything has to be healthy. I did not like Garden Kitchen at all.”

I would point out that one day, I believe, they were served a kind of banana bread. So take Lily’s words with an entire shaker of salt.

With Green Science, the girls spent more time visiting the forest, finding frogs and toads, and they both enjoyed this so much that they came home and searched our yard to find more little creatures. The girls said that there was a good bit of overlap between what they did at both camps, but that they’d give the edge to Green Science.


Though Lily’s an art fiend, she’s done this camp 3 or 4 summers at this point – and they largely stick to the same formula – so she opted for Camp Invention this time, while Neve went for her second Art Adventure at Heritage Park.

She did the camp with one of her old preschool buddies, who she doesn’t get to see often, so they had a blast together. One nice thing about the camp is they don’t just focus on visual arts (like the painted self-portrait they always produce, and a puppet); they also do music via drumming and explore storytelling.

“I liked making new friends, and I liked the teachers,” said Neve. “But sometimes, when we’re in music, … we had to walk through the whole building to get to the bathroom.”

As you can see, this is a recurring theme in Neve’s reviews.

TOTAL DRAMA (Lily only)

Lily aged out of Rising Stars this year, so this was her first time in (the fittingly titled) Total Drama theater camp at the Farmington Players Barn (cost $255).

“I like that we got to make our own show,” Lily said, referring to the uber-trippy “Finding Rory.” “It was creative, but I didn’t like how they chose who was who.”


Lily as Captain Hook in Total Drama. Love the five o’clock shadow!

Which is to say, Lily didn’t care for the casting process. “No one person was supposed to be in charge, but not as many people got their voice (in the script) as they wanted it, and that wasn’t fair,” said Lily. “ … The person in charge was a kid.”

It should be noted that age-wise, Lily was at the bottom of this group, so she may have felt, or actually been, squeezed out a bit, which she’s not accustomed to. And similar to Rising Stars above, you’ll probably have to cobble together some kind of costume for the show, and you can’t drop off your camper until 1 p.m. on Friday because of the 6 p.m. performance. But it’s all for the glory of thea-tah…


This was our first time trying out camps at the zoo (cost, $250) and the girls seemed to have a great time. Neve’s favorite part was feeding the giraffes, while Lily’s was “going behind the scenes with the lizards and reptiles.”


Neve enjoying the carousel after a day at Safari Camp.

They both came home jonesing to do more of a craft they learned while there – making snakes and lizards with strung beads – and Lily loved seeing the new otter habitat, “watching a wolverine tear apart a pinata with meat inside,” and experiencing the Spongebob Simulator. (Each age group does one “ticketed” activity during the week, so Neve’s group took a ride on the train, while Lily’s did the Simulator.)

“One thing I didn’t like was that some of the activities were a little weird, and we had to sing all the time, most of the time, even when we didn’t want to,” Lily said.

Mandatory singing? OH, THE HUMANITY!

Meanwhile, Neve didn’t like that it was hot and sunny while waiting to feed the giraffes, and that they had to be in line with non-camper civilians. But these seem pretty minor. Still calling the zoo camp registration a “win.”


Lily’s done this camp (cost, $210) at Heritage Park’s art studio a few times now, and this was Neve’s second time through. (Logistically, it’s one of the latest camps on offer before school starts, so I’ve been glad that both girls love it.) By week’s end, they seem to have an armload of projects they’ve completed.

“I love that I get to be as creative as a I want to be,” Lily said. “Everyone there is creative and awesome and fun, and we get to go to the park sometimes.”

One of Neve’s highlights was “making a (cardboard) robot that stands,” and they both said they’d be happy to go again.


Neve: Raanana, skateboarding, Green Science, Encore, Safari, Camp Creative

Lily: skateboarding, Camp Invention, Raanana, and Encore

Happy camping!

3 thoughts on “Camped out: the exit interview

  1. Trudi says:

    Check out the day camps at the Henry Ford. My kids love them.

  2. Michael Schott says:

    Easy to relate to with a 6 year old (he’s now 7). Robin also did the Skate Camp this past summer. It was a bit much for him but he had fun. His favorite camps were the two weeks spent at the Farmington Hills All Sports camp at the Costick Center. They also have the godsend of an aftercare at Costick. Robin spent most weeks at the day camp provided by Lifetime Fitness in Novi. They have really nice programs including weekly field trips, excellent counselors and that blessed aftercare.

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