With cooler mornings and evenings, and a slew of bright, dry days calling out, “September,” right on cue, I find myself glancing backward, to drink in the last of summer’s glory. This year, memory is not drenched with humidity nor scorched by massive heat waves. The temperate late summer spell seems fitting for a summer marked by rains and coolness and some of the most perfect days I can conjure up, not just this year, but ever. It was bad for strawberries and tomatoes, good for blueberries and greens. That sense of ups and downs offered at nearly any given time also seems fitting, somehow, at least for me, as I try to hold the summer in my hands a tiny bit longer—and savor it.

If I were to write a little novelty book, I know exactly what I’d do: One Thousand Things About Parenting No One Ever Tells You. On my list—pretty high, in fact—would be this important item: in the summer, kids need something to do, or you have to amuse them (or at least, tolerate their proximate coexistence).

All this is a longwinded way to get to the very important, confusing, often magnificent universe of summer camps. After nearly a decade’s worth of day camp-aged kids, I have a handle on many of the offerings around the Valley. Of course, I have only a small number—relative to all the wonderful camps available—I can vouch for personally. And quite obviously, certain camps work especially well for certain kids; particularly as so many camps are fairly specialized, it seems prudent to choose with each individual child in mind (along with reasonable consideration to the family’s common good, by which I mean that I do not advocate parents making heroic efforts for summer camp. Personally (and with the right to change my mind back), after a very taxing week of driving to a ballet camp without much carpool availability, and somehow with copious traffic (maybe a bridge construction summer? I can’t recall) I decided camp in Amherst—no matter how fabulous the prospects were—fell into the category of “beyond Mama’s capability.” So, Amherst, for camp, you sound really great—and that’s all. I take everyone’s word for it.

I’ve written other pieces about Ezekiel—turning 14 this month—having had a pair of amazing experiences this summer: an apprenticeship with Paintbox Theatre for a month and then Deerfield Academy Summer Arts Camp (otherwise known as DASAC). Ezekiel’s also enjoyed weeks and weeks of mainly amusing until bored, do-nothing kind of time. This was his first summer volunteering with Paintbox—although he’d long been one of its biggest fans—and as predicted, he had an amazing time helping out. This was his second summer at DASAC, a camp we’d been told about like this—“You have to send Ezekiel to DASAC”—since he was four (regardless of the fact that you cannot attend until you turn 11).

Different kids want and need different things. Lucien, himself 11 now, does best with some structure and physical activity. While he’s gone to some of the same camps—drama, art, even dance, and I’m betting eventually, DASAC—his brother has attended in the past, this year, his major summer interest was tennis. He ended up at three different tennis camps: he was a day camper at World Sports Camp—an overnight camp, primarily, this one housed at Williston in Easthampton (a pretty easy ten-minute drive, with some carpooling thrown in); he also did the Northampton Recreation Department’s Summer Tennis Program; finally, he spent a week in Philadelphia visiting his many grandparents there (four) and did a tennis camp at a local country club, the Germantown Cricket Club (what-what, he needed tennis whites for the first time in his life).

He also spent a week at Marion Abrams’ Summer Art in Hatfield (more on this to come) and a week at Eaglebrook Soccer Camp (twenty-plus minutes away, bus to camp five minutes away).

Here are the main elements that marked Lucien’s summer camp experience this year: 1) he was physically active. The World Sports Camp had different sports options, but his choice—three weeks’ worth—was tennis, tennis, and then, more tennis (and ran for a long day: 9-5:30). He got a lot of sun and a lot of running and a lot of drills and playing in. Some days, he and his neighbor pal, Sam, rode bikes to the afternoon tennis the Recreation Department offers. In Philadelphia, he also played a lot of tennis (in the blazing heat). And at Eaglebrook, he played a lot of soccer. He tells me even at art camp, he was very active playing tag and capture-the-flag, which I believe, because he often did not finish his lunch (too busy racing around, playing). 2) He met a lot of new kids. At the overnight camp, although being a day camper (and one of the youngest kids) was socially a bit uncomfortable, and although in Philadelphia, he obviously knew no one going in, Lucien impressed me by engaging with so many kids. He quizzed the overnight campers—from France, Asia, and New Jersey, and even Philadelphia—on favorite foods, both in home countries or region and locally. Plus, he learned a lot of curse words, in a lot of languages (a fine summer achievement). Before leaving for Philadelphia, I ran down the acronyms of the local independent schools, and off he went, making new friends from PC (Penn Charter), AFS (Abington Friends School, where some World Sports’ campers also went to school) and GFS (Germantown Friends, my alma mater). He seemed to enjoy getting to know kids from these new places (I think it ended up being good that he was on the older end of that week’s group; it gave him some added confidence). 3) He had some real “old home” experiences, his sixth summer at art camp and his fourth at soccer camp. 4) He didn’t get in any trouble.

What was so great—from the parental peanut gallery—about the summer for Lucien was how he managed the new and regaled in the old, if not equally, then with enough relish for both (old was more out-and-out fun). He moved with ease, though, between spending time with brand-new kids, really close buddies, and kids he knew not as well (from different grades or different schools). The clichés about how being involved in sports builds a sense of community seemed completely true; he knew kids from tennis other years and from soccer teams. He got to know kids that were friendly with kids he knew through tennis or soccer… a web of friendships.

Equally gratifying was the fact that after summers during which some weeks fell apart—acting out in the Recreation Department tennis or really struggling during the school’s camp-like June offerings—Lucien sailed through, almost without a moment’s faltering. Even when he struggled—as he did after a day of grumpy counselors at the Williston camp—he went back and tried again, and kept sailing. As pleasurable as it is to have one’s kid do well, it’s perhaps even sweeter to have a kid do well when it feels hard-won. This to say, I know I reveled in Lucien’s successes this summer; I think he did, too.

For Remy, this first summer away from the comfortable continuity of his preschool’s summer program was a bit more mixed (although by his last summer at Sunnyside, he was inevitably chafing just a bit, ready for kindergarten and the challenges of the larger-scaled world; his teachers note this every summer, that the kids suddenly seem just a little too big for the space).

I scheduled a lot of weeks off from any organized activity (Remy thrives on plenty of time to play, including this week and what’s clear is downtime works for him). He’s spent his home weeks either playing on his own or spending hours and hours and still more hours with his pals. It’s amazing to see him peel off with a friend into an alternate space, heads often close together, giggles, stories, quizzes, ideas, make believe… Our less structured days also allowed us some fantastic opportunities to do some serious pool hopping (although most of it at our neighbors’, where we have now been on chlorine and filter clearing duty, banishing drowned dead mice into the bushes and feeling super brave). The time in the water—not just pools, also Leeds’ Reservoir—turned Remy from pure dog paddler into aspiring fish. He and Gabriel—in one of those “only in Northampton” moments—were having potlucks underwater. He’s leaping into the water, diving for pennies, the whole early fish nine yards. His big brothers are decidedly not fish (thus far) and so for this mama, who loves to swim, the time spent in the water with Remy (and Saskia, who splish-splashes and puts her face in the water, all the better to slurp it) was about as perfect summer as it could ever get.

For the sake of my work (and sanity), I did put Remy in the school’s camp-like three-week program to get him to summer vacation proper. While he appeared—once on the playground, and when I picked him up—to be engaged, he declared that he didn’t like the June program. What did I learn? It was hard for him to be in the same physical space with new teachers, as if it should have been more comfortable than it felt, at least until the very end (making stone soup—that was a winning activity and a winning day). Also, it was frustrating, after weeks playing kickball after school with older kids, to play solely with his peers at a more “kindergarten” level, with kindergarten accommodations. Alas, there is no such thing as kickball camp. That might be his number one pick (maybe kickball and swimming, actually).

As it was, I opted for two tried-and-true camps and one brand-new (to me) for Remy. Brand-new—and apparently, Remy’s favorite of the bunch—was Chinese Camp (also at Williston, complete with a fine carpool partner). While he said learning Chinese was the “worst” part of the camp, he clearly hummed songs and is pulling out vocabulary and noticing Chinese more (not my priority, just cool). What he professed to enjoy were the parts I imagined would be fun: some art projects, some outside adventures (blueberry picking), plenty of games (and lovely younger counselors-in-training), the cafeteria lunch, and the chance to swim in the school’s pool every day. He was fully engaged, knew some kids, made some new friends, and came home tired. The thing that made it—beyond all that activity—really was the fact that the staff was so kind. All that warmth enveloped my busy boy.

Tired-and-true camp number one was the Drama Camp at the Northampton Montessori school, which is a place we’d logged many wonderful summers when Ezekiel and Lucien were toddlers through young thespians (say, age three to nine). I decided that this camp would and could work for Remy, even though he is avowedly anti-performing himself, because Jeanine Haas, who runs the program is such a terrific teacher and she was to be ably assisted by Josh Parrad, a Montessori and Williston graduate, who is into both theater and sports (kickball, tag…), and because there’s a great yard at the school, and the program includes art every day, and finally because Remy would be with his closest pal, Gabriel (and plenty of other good friends). Turns out, he made good new pals, too, and yet the performance loomed so large that he couldn’t totally settle in and enjoy himself as much as he or I had hoped. He did make a fantastic looking fortuneteller and he was plenty loud proclaiming of a person’s palm the future would bring “good luck.” True to Remy form, all the complaining (and even legitimate anxiety) wasn’t terribly apparent when I dropped him off to play with his pals or picked him up, but I got nearly constant earfuls (in part, that’s just how Remy operates: does great where he goes and complains to his mama, a lot). I was a little sad about his reaction, but not totally surprised, and got to practice one of those critical parental lessons: you’re aiming to find what suits your child, regardless of what you prefer.

Tried-and-true camp number two was one of the weeks for younger kids at Summer Art, which we affectionately call the Art Barn. Like Eaglebrook’s soccer camp or DASAC, this has become a veritable Valley institution. What I love about the Art Barn is how unplugged, relaxed, and simple it is: a barn, a lot of kids, a lot of counselors—from 13 year-olds in training to school teachers on vacation and everyone in between—and a lot of art projects—and a lot of tag. As Marion once said, “It’s like the quilting bee, without the quilt.” What she meant was that this is a chatty, giggly experience. Many kids go every summer (some all summer long). Remy loves art and he loves tag, so I figured it was a safe bet. He did find reason to complain, though; he wanted more free art time, rather than so many projects!

Having said that, I can attest that the Art Barn worked for Remy. My favorite story from the Art Barn this year was from Lucien’s “Natural Materials” week, though. The first day he got home (he was chauffeured by Jennifer and Susan all week long, along with their kids, for which I remain hugely appreciative) from a very happy first day of camp (remember, for Lucien, this was old home week, old friends, familiar surroundings, plus loads of tag), I asked, “Did you cut your hair?” He nodded yes. The front strands, which had that very morning been tucked behind his ears, no longer reached his ears. He explained, “We made paintbrushes from our hair. Erin’s mom wants her to grow her hair; she already thinks Erin’s hair is too short so she could have been mad if Erin cut it any more, so I gave her some of mine.” He smiled. Nothing could better exemplify the camp: no one worries (the camp, that is) about whether it’s okay to cut some hair (hair grows).

The other big story from the Art Barn was that Remy spent his week with old friends and new ones, most notably of the old friends was reuniting with his toddler-through-preschool best buddy, Benj, who Remy distanced himself from (different grade and different school). Time at camp spilled into some afternoons at the river and dinner at Benj’s house and play dates the week afterwards… One evening, Remy said to me, “Why haven’t we played with Benj in so long?” He forgot how many times he’d refused reconnecting with Benj, even though, whenever Remy’s willing, the pair have not just a little fun, but lots of fun together. In that relaxed setting, with art projects and tag games and picnic lunches—and an early enough ending time that plenty of the day remained—Remy rediscovered a tried-and-true pal. Hooray for the new and hooray for the tried-and-true.