One afternoon this summer when I was really irritated with Zoe about something, she got out a piece of neon orange construction paper and a red marker and wrote me a thank you note. She asked me how to spell all the words, but the note was still moving. She wrote “Thank you for taking me to cool camps. I love you Mommy.”

I stopped being mad. And I was relieved that she liked all the camps I had registered her for in February after a flurry of frenzied online research, visits to camp fairs, and absurdly extensive discussions of summer camps with other parents. I have asked her several times which one was her favorite and she consistently repsonds, “all of them!”

I, however, had more subtle opinions about the camps. The first camp of the summer was two weeks of fun at Zoe’s preschool. It was pretty much like school, but in a different classroom and some different kids and it was generally more relaxed. It was great.

The next camp was a week of Ballerina Princess Camp at Perfect Pointe Dance Studio. Zoe enjoyed dancing. She learned the basic ballet positions and their actual names, which was more than I could say for the ballet class she took last winter. They made ballerina princessy crafts and costumes. They colored a lot of xeroxed pictures of princesses. They had goldfish and water for a snack. I’m pretty sure they learned about Swan Lake, but the music at their 15-minute recital was from The Little Mermaid. It was fine, but I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Camp Number Two was two weeks at the Arlington Arts Center. This is a very cool place where I would definitely return (and sign Zoe up for more camp or other classes). Zoe created a multitude of incredibly interesting art using a wide variety of materials, some of which I would not have expected them to hand over to four-year-olds. AAC offers three classes a day, beginning at 10am and ending at 4:30. In between classes, teenage counselors play games like telephone and ghost in the graveyard with the campers. Zoe was amazed that I knew those games and had played them myself. There’s also a playground out back, but most of the days Zoe was there it was 100 degrees and they had to stay inside.

Next came a two-week session at Congo Camp, run by the Congressional Schools of Virginia. On the first day, arriving at Congo Camp felt like I was taking Zoe to college. It’s a huge operation with what seemed like hundreds of staff and thousands of kids, all wearing tangerine, lime, and white t-shirts. They’re extremely organized, which I appreciated. They gave Zoe a hot lunch every day, which was awesome and saved me the trouble of packing one. Zoe got to swim every day and ride horses (well, ponies) for the first time. And she made a wonderful friend named Bobby from whom she was inseparable for the whole two-week session. The only downside to Congo Camp was because it’s so big and because of the way they organize drop-off, I never got to meet any other parents, which was important only because Zoe wanted to have a playdate with Bobby, which never came to pass. The other thing was they lost her sandals. I guess technically she lost them, but she’s four and they’re grown-ups so I thought they would have kept an eye on them on her behalf. But she had a great time there and I felt like she was well cared for. And the camp goes until mid-afternoon, with optional aftercare, so it’s great for working parents.

Zoe returned to Perfect Pointe Dance Studio for a week of Dance My Way. We had already signed up for it, and it was fine, but again I wasn’t wowed.

Rounding out the camp experience was a two-week session at Synetic Theater. The first day at dropoff was total chaos. We didn’t know what was happening or where to go and I couldn’t tell for a while who was in charge. I was immediately skeptical. But the second day when I dropped her off, every adult there seemed to know her name and be happy to see her. So I was convinced that they were a bit more together than the initial impression indicated. There’s also a large age range in the classes there, and Zoe’s class included four- through six-year-olds. I think she was the youngest kid, and there’s a big difference between four age six. But the art teacher assured me Zoe was holding her own, and the camp director, at the end of the last day, said Zoe was the cutest thing he’d ever seen. 🙂 They did a play that included every single kid, which was ambitious and fun and surprisingly good for something that was produced in two weeks. Zoe learned choreography and words to a song that she performed on stage with her class and the big kids. She made some very cool art work as well. I think overall Synetic was a success and I would consider sending her back there. The only downside is that they offer an afternoon session, but only when you’re seven years old. That’s a long time away for us.

It’s the middle of fall now and summer has receded in everyone’s brains, but I’m already thinking about winter camps, and whether I’ll sign Zoe up for any days where she can do something more interesting and messier than what we have to offer at home. I’m not quite ready to sign her up, but at least now I’m better informed about camp and know what to look for when I do.