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ONLINE DOCUMENT: HELP YOUR CHILD HAVE A FUN SUMMER

Do you remember your summers as a child, when the last day of school seemed endless?

I remember taking my shoes off in May and not putting them on again (except an hour each Sunday) for three glorious months.I lived on an island, and from the time I was 5 I was gone every day from dawn to dusk exploring neat places and neat stuff the tides dragged in. I swam, fished, built forts, hunted bullfrogs down in the swamp and went out to sea occasionally on a raft. One year I got to sail a three-master through the Golden Gate Bridge.

Not every child can have summers like mine; not every kid lives on an island. But I'll bet you have your own favorite memories of summer vacations. It should be the same way for your children.

Summer is an important part of growing up. Children need to experience more than the same old routine of coming and going - with the constant drone of TV tucked in between. Children need stimulation, excitement and exploration. They need the chance to be outdoors doing stuff that dreams are made from.

Now is the time to start the search for those opportunities. Most parents begin to think about summer camp, or at least some kind of child care for the summer, right after spring break. Whether you need full-time care or some half days, summer camp can help fill the bill.

Camps provide physical activities, imaginative play with some adult direction, and hands-on study of botany and zoology - even for the little guys.

Of course, if you have children under 2, don't expect your provider to change her routine just because it's summer. She still has to keep feeding schedules and nap schedules, and that's okay unless she fills up her day care with school-aged children. When that happens, someone gets lost in the shuffle. On the flip side, if you have school-aged children, don't look for places filled with toddlers and infants. The big kids spend long hours waiting through naps, feedings and other necessities for the little ones that conflict with their activities.

Look for a provider who specializes in your child's age group - unless there is enough staff to serve everyone. Also, match environments: if you have school-aged children, don't choose a family day care home so neat and orderly that your child has to ask to sit down. Better go for the clutter and the look of busyness. Choose the place with the sandbox. Better yet, find the place with the barn and the pool and the dog.

And remember, it's the staff who make or break the place. Enthusiastic and energetic families and staff who are willing to get dirty along with the kids are much more effective than those who stand back and manage at arm's length. Avoid adults who fear dirt; it's a definite clash with summer fun.

It's a bit of a search to find just the right place - more than a phone call or two. But if you think back to your favorite summer when you were a child, it might inspire you to find what you really want for your children.