Standing in the 5 a.m. cold, using a 16-ounce Dunkin' Donuts coffee as a hand warmer, is a familiar experience for parents of peewee hockey players and aspiring figure skaters. But the scores of frostbitten parents who lined up outside the Natick Parks and Recreation office earlier this month had visions of playgrounds and ponds, not pucks, in mind as they stamped their frozen feet.
The prize for standing in the snow for more than three hours: A guarantee of a slot in the town's Wood Trail Camp, a day program for elementary-school-age children that, at $138 per week, is one of the more affordable full-day summer camps in the area. Richard Cugini, Natick's recreation superintendent, said the camp, which takes 425 children in each session, was more than half-filled before lunchtime.
As economic pressures on working parents have increased and summer has become less of a time for leisure than just another, if warmer, time of the year, city- and town-run day programs are becoming increasingly popular as less-expensive alternatives to more-traditional, better-established summer camps. To help meet demand, Natick, Needham, Newton, and Wayland are among the communities starting camps or adding capacity to existing ones.
"Parents are doing what they have to do to take care of their family unit and to make ends meet," Cugini said. "And what they need is for their children to be in a good program that also provides day care. In that sense," he said, municipal camps "are a good situation."
With access to public schools, playgrounds, and beaches, town- or city-run camps generally have lower overhead than those that are privately run or belong to the YMCA or a religious group. That allows them to charge significantly less in fees. They also generally hire younger counselors, often of high-school age, than private camps, which also decreases costs.
Children of parents who opt for private camps, meanwhile, often get older counselors, a wider range of activities - such as swimming lessons instead of simple free-swim times - and access to better facilities, but at a significantly higher price.
In Newton, for example, a week at the Albemarle Acres day camp, which is based at the city's Horace Mann Elementary School and includes swimming at a municipal pool, crafts, sports, and other activities, will cost $150 per child for a seven-hour day this summer. Newton residents receive an additional $10 discount per child, bringing the cost down to $140 per week.
By comparison, a week across the street at the Fessenden Day Camp, which uses first-class facilities at the tony, private Fessenden School, costs $481 for a seven-hour day.
In Wayland, a week at the town's Summer Adventure Camp costs $250, with town residents receiving a weekly $10-per-child discount. A week at the YMCA's Camp Chickami across town, meanwhile, costs $308, and the price goes up to $358 per week if parents opt for bus transportation.
The relative affordability of the municipal camps has increased demand, officials said.
In Wayland, for example, the town's day camp program had expanded significantly, reaching a peak enrollment of 722 children in 2005, according to JoAnn Kiburz, a program assistant for the town's Parks and Recreation Department. In 2006, in an effort to lower the camper-to-counselor ratio, the town limited enrollment to 434 children, but an outcry from parents drove that limit back up to 554 children last summer. Capacity is set to expand again for this summer, she said.
Parents are also demanding more and better programming, so cities and towns are adding specialty camps with educational themes, such as art, science, conservation, and the environment.
"In my day, you just made a pot holder or something like that," Kiburz said. "That's not enough for parents anymore; they want their children to be learning."
Since Albemarle Acres was established in 1982, Newton has added 14 other camp and summer programs that will be featured at the city's annual Camp Fair at City Hall on Feb. 5, according to Judy Dore, Newton's camp fair coordinator. Dore also said demand continues to grow.
In 2006, the city's Albemarle Acres and Centre Acres day camps reached their maximum enrollment of 125 children each in late May or early June, Dore said. Last year, both camps were full by April. This year, the city is adding a third day camp, Auburndale Station, to accommodate another 36 children, she said.
The city has also established weeklong sports clinics, an outdoor adventure camp, and several weeks of a "Funtastic Summer Vacation" program, in which students take a different field trip every day for a week to destinations like the Museum of Science, Franklin Park Zoo, and Fenway Park. The options allow parents to choose different camps and activities for their children to break up the monotony of doing the same thing all summer.
"Parents really like the variety," Dore said.
In Needham, meanwhile, Parks and Recreation Department officials have doubled the capacity of their summer program for preschoolers, anticipating a continued influx of younger children.
Karen Pierce, the town's assistant director of summer programs, said the rise in very young campers shows that the approach families take to summer has changed dramatically in a generation.
"I grew up on the Jersey Shore and my summer camp was the beach," she said. "We really made our own summer camp, riding our bikes, hanging out at each other's houses. But now it's really more like day care. As kids, we loved summer, but now when I talk to parents, they say they hate the summer because there's no extended-day programs.
"Things have definitely changed."