If you like connecting with grandchildren and bringing the cousins closer together, consider hosting Grandma Camp. If you make a practice of having several grandchildren for a sleepover with special activities, then you have already been hosting Grandma Camp, perhaps without calling it by that name. If you’re a little intimidated by the idea of having full responsibility for a gang of grandchildren, try a shorter themed visit first.
If everything goes well, give a longer camp a try. These strategies will make the experience manageable and fun for both grandparents and grandchildren.
A word about the name: Grandfathers are often involved in Grandma Camp, but calling it Grandpa Camp has never caught on. Grandparent Camp has come to mean something slightly different, so the Grandma Camp name is likely to stick. Some grandparents opt for the gender-neutral Cousin Camp.
Who Goes to Grandma Camp?
Lots of grandparents like to host all of their grandchildren at once. If they are widely separated in ages and interests, or if you are intimidated by having all of them at once, you can host more than one Grandma Camp. Usually, however, the older grandkids can be pressed into service to help with the younger ones, and one of the points is to get the grandchildren better acquainted with each other. Some grandparents make the rule that their grandchildren must be out of diapers before they can attend.
It's also perfectly acceptable to have Grandma Camp with one, two or three campers. It will have a different vibe, but it can still be loads of fun. If you have only one or two grandchildren, by all means get started with them. Your expertise can grow along with your grandchild numbers.
Parents and Other Helpers
Most grandparents feel that the spirit of Grandma Camp requires that the parents be gone for at least part of the time.
Sometimes the parents are invited for the final day or hours of the event. That’s not a bad idea, as the grandparents may need some help by then.
Some grandparents rely on enlisting extra help. If both grandparents are available and willing to be involved, that’s great. If not, you may want to invite a friend or relative to join the fun. Just be sure the invitee is someone who will pitch in and help. For kids under the age of 10, you probably need a grown-up for each three kids. If you plan activities that require close supervision, such as water activities or camping, you will need an adult for each two kids. And while older grandchildren can certainly lend a hand, as mentioned earlier, they shouldn't be responsible for the safety of younger children unless they are older teens or young adults.
When to Hold Grandma Camp
Most grandparents choose summer, but some opt for spring break or Christmas break. The more critical decision is how long Grandma Camp should last. If planning your first camp, try not to be overly ambitious. Start small and short until you figure out what you can handle.
Most Grandma Camps involve sleeping over, but you can get your feet wet with a day camp. If your grandchildren live nearby, you can have camp on a series of days but send the young ones home at night, perhaps with one sleepover as a culminating event.
I’ve heard of camps that last as long as a week, but most grandparents choose two or three days. I wouldn't opt for a full week unless the grandchildren are older and somewhat self-sufficient.
Be sure to announce the date early enough to allow your family members to get Grandma Camp in their schedules.
Make Arrangements for Sleep
Chances are that you don’t have enough beds for your grandchildren. Air mattresses are a good solution. Foam pieces that can be rolled up and stored during the day are another approach. If the kids have sleeping bags, ask the parents to bring them. Using sleeping bags will reduce the amount of bedding that you have to supply and launder. Very young campers require a safe sleep environment, such as a portable crib, and appropriate bedding, which means no pillows, comforters, or blankets.
Some adventurous grandparents like to set up a tent in the yard for their campers. If the weather cooperates, this is a big hit with the kids. At least one adult should stay with the children.
What to Feed Little Campers
Chances are that you have at least one grandchild who is a picky eater. Unless you already know each grandkid's preferences, I recommend getting a list of foods that each child will eat ahead of time, (This list will be handy for other occasions, too.) Try to come up with menus that will appeal to most of your guests. On the other hand, don’t stress too much about food. Children will survive a day or two of not eating optimally. You should, however, make an effort to uphold the nutritional standards of the kids’ parents.
Planning ahead will also make meals easier. Do as much food prep as you can ahead of time, and consider ordering pizza when you need a break from the kitchen. Buy paper plates and cups that can be marked with the kids’ names to reduce clean-up time. If you use an outdoor table, your kitchen will stay cleaner, and eating out-of-doors always gives meals a festive air.
To Schedule or Not to Schedule
Lots of grandmas report success in using schedules. They can be invaluable for those grandchildren who really need to know what to expect, especially for those who have trouble with transitions. One grandma who created a work chart for camp says that the chore chart has become one of her grandkids' favorite aspects of Grandma Camp. Obviously that’s a talented grandma!
Another grandma who hosts a weeklong day camp for her three grandsons gives them a schedule of each day’s activities that tells just enough to pique their interest.
Some grandparents and grandchildren prefer more spontaneity. If you have activities planned for each day, there's no reason why they can't be discarded if they aren't working or extended if they are.
Contain the Mess
Within a short period of time, your neat grandparents' house is likely to look a lot less neat. That goes with the territory, but if things get so messy that belongings are lost, you could have a problem.
Minimize misplaced items by having some kind of “cubby” for each child. It can be a laundry basket, a fancy collapsible cubby or a cardboard box. Line them up along a wall.Use them for wraps, mislaid objects and anything that is going to be going home with the kids. The house will stay neater, and you’ll be able to find everyone’s belongings quickly.
What About a Theme?
A theme isn't necessary, but having one does make camp more fun. You'll find that ideas multiply once you decide on a theme. Don't be tempted to make everything birthday party cute, though, or you'll spend far more time than you need to. Think of a theme as something to organize activities around rather than as a motif for decorations.
If you decide to go for a theme, here are some categories to consider:
- Countries: Go on a African safari, visit the land down under, or take a virtual trip to Japan.
- Books or Movies: Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter and Star Wars are popular with kids.
- History: Go back to the Wild West, be pioneers or visit the future in a Space Camp.
- Science: Learn about birds, insects and flowers; go rock-hunting or do home science experiments.
At Home or Away
Some grandparents love to take their grandchildren places, and some prefer staying at home. Providing transportation for a whole gaggle of grandchildren can be an issue. If you opt for staying at home, don't feel bad about it. Research has shown that it's the simple activities that children remember the longest.
If you decide to take the grandchildren somewhere, remember that the amount of adult supervision you will need goes up when you leave the house. Movies, zoos, museums and parks are popular choices for outings or choose one of these offbeat destinations.
Be sure to set out ground rules before you leave the house, including a projected time for returning home. It’s always a good idea to leave before the kids are really ready, because by the time they are ready to go, they are often overtired. Have an advance plan for handling meals, snacks and gift shops. One way to avoid dropping a fortune in the gift shop of the zoo or museum is to pick up “souvenirs” ahead of time and hide them in the car for the trip home.
Plan for Fatigue
For many grandparents, the biggest problem in being with grandchildren is fatigue. If you're going to be in total charge of your grandchildren for a few days, you will definitely have times when you are tired. Don’t wear yourself out getting ready for Grandma Camp. Be well rested at the beginning, or you will be exhausted at the end. Take an occasional breather during the day. Let one adult take over while the other rests. It’s okay to require rest periods for the children as well. You can pop in a movie if that makes it easier. With older children, you can often explain that Grandma must rest for half an hour. Set the kitchen timer, put your feet up and refuse to budge for half an hour. In fact, make the grandchildren wait on you!
Find hints and ideas from grandparents who have hosted Grandma Camps, or check out this list of books about Grandma Camp, called Cousin Camp by some.