BOSTON (Reuters) - Ah, summer. While warmer weather may still feel far off for most Americans, for parents, late February and early March has become the official start to the race to find ways to keep their kids educated and entertained once school lets out for vacation.
Last summer, according to estimates by American Express, families in the U.S. spent some $55 billion on summer activities, or an average of $856 per child. That was 40 percent more than in 2012, making it easy to assume that costs will rise once again in 2014. The American Camp Association (ACA), which accredits more than 2,400 camps nationwide, reports the weekly cost of day camp averaged about $300 while a week at overnight camp averaged about $690.
Most summer programs offer some scholarships or merit aid — $216 million in assistance at ACA-accredited camps alone — while others may offer discounts to returning or legacy campers. Parents may also be able to seek tax credits or use monies from a dependent-care flexible savings account to pay for certain activities, says Peg Smith, the ACA's CEO.
But whether parents are signing up for sleep-away camp, tennis lessons or a pool membership, being a savvy consumer not only helps save money but also ensures a happy, healthy, and busy brood all summer long. "Start making decisions now," Smith says. "A camp that isn't a good match for your child is a waste of money no matter what."
Then again, today's kids have options this summer that their parents never dreamed of. Athletes can spend a week at basketball or football training camp — or learn fencing, taekwondo, or modern dance. And these experiences are as likely to be in China or Japan as the next town over.
Below is a sampling of just some of the adventures to be had in summer 2014.
Pennsylvania's Camp Kweebec has become home to some 300 boys and girls from up and down the East Coast for each summer since 1935. This year, however, it set its sights on broader horizons, launching the International Leadership Camp, one of the first summer programs in China for middle-schoolers.
During the three-week program in July, campers will receive intensive language instruction as well as courses in martial arts, calligraphy, even Chinese medicine and cooking, all while living with Chinese peers at the Taihu International School.
The 2014 tuition fee is $9,975.
"We wanted to provide opportunities to speak Mandarin and absorb the local culture in casual settings outside traditional classrooms," says program director Matthew Rosenfield.
Vermont's Middlebury College, through its partnership with the Monterey Institute for International Studies, offers similar language immersion programs for high school students in Beijing and Comillas, Spain, for Spanish learners.
Closer to home, Middlebury-Monterey also has programs in German, French and Arabic open to students in grade 8 to 12. Fees range from about $6,000 for the U.S.-based programs to $9,200 for the overseas campuses.
Be forewarned, no English allowed!
Got a tinkerer at home? Young engineers learn how to design and construct the next big thing at Camp Invention programs nationwide, backed by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
New Hampshire's Letgo Your Mind offers day camp sessions on LEGO cars, designing video games, even creating hovercraft. Tuition is $295 per week.
Many universities, including MIT and CalTech, have summer programs focused on robotics for high school students. And there is always Space Camp — based at NASA's U.S. Space & Rocket Center, campers as young as age 9 learn what it takes to live and work in space. The six-day program costs $979 per person in the summer.
Forget band camp — today's aspiring Jimi Hendrixes are spending their summer months learning how to write, record, even auto-tune the next top 40 hits.
At the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls in New York City, campers form bands on the first day and spend the next week attending workshops on topics from sound engineering to self-defense.
Campers at the Brooklyn Music Factory learn not only music-making, but also do a little urban rock-climbing at lunchtime. And at the Bandwriting Collective, for $1,000, the two-week session ends with a concert at a major New York City music venue.
"My two sons started off their teenage years falling in love with the acoustic guitar," says Alison Schwartz, who has sent her kids, both in high school, to School of Rock camps in New York and Texas. "I was glad to pay for them to go learn to play Led Zeppelin somewhere besides my house."
(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Editing by Lauren Young and Stephen Powell