Getting Into Some Popular Day Camps Is Like Winning the Lottery — Literally

Sailing, printmaking, LEGO animation, working with farm animals: When it comes to summer day camps in Vermont, there are so many enticing options. Unfortunately, spots are limited.

Popular programs, particularly in Chittenden County, fill up fast. In fact, when you’re reading this, it may already be too late to sign up for some of them. There will still be camps with openings in February, March and April — including many at — but there are some that open registration in January or even December. Returning campers can sometimes sign up even earlier.

When Kids VT surveyed parents and caregivers about summer camp at the end of last year, the sign-up scramble came up many times. One colorful comment, from Meredith Breiland of Milton, stood out:

“I was able to get Taylor Swift concert tickets but not the day camps we wanted in 2023,” she wrote. “It’s way too competitive!”

Breiland elaborated on her process in a follow-up email. She and her husband both work full time, she explained. “We are extremely privileged to be able to afford camp options for the summer that go beyond simple childcare and offer enrichment. At the core, however, we need childcare for our first and fourth graders.”

Breiland is determined to find it. She’s remarkably well organized: “The Google sheet my husband and I coordinate together is complex: including color-coding, notations, pricing, sign-up details and schedules. (It is now forecasting out to 2025.)”

The couple also have flexibility in their positions to coordinate their schedules. And they’re “desk jockeys” who can jump on camp registration that opens at 8 or 9 a.m. on a weekday. “Confession: I have finished up camp registrations while on Zoom meetings,” Breiland wrote.

Still, last summer, “we followed the instructions exactly — which had worked for me in the Taylor Swift ticket frenzy — and it still left us [with] a hole in our plans.”

Local camp directors say the problem is real. In fact, some have announced changes to their registration systems this year, though adding more capacity is much harder, given staffing and space constraints. They offered a few suggestions to help parents in the meantime.

Play the lottery

John Nagle, program director at the Community Sailing Center on Lake Champlain in Burlington, said the sailing center’s camps have seen a dramatic sign-up bump since the pandemic. Little Guppies, for 6- to 7-year-olds, fills up very fast. So does the Level I sailing camp for 8- to 10-year-olds.

According to the center’s website, each year there are more than 1,000 campers interested in just 570 camp spots. “It’s a great problem to have, I guess,” Nagle said.

Last year the center unveiled a new, more efficient online registration system that worked a little too well. Nagle said the camps sold out “really, really quickly.” Some people who started registering when it opened were halfway through when the spots ran out. He heard about parents pulling over to the side of the road and registering on their phones.

After hearing “story after story” like this, the center decided to move to a lottery system this year; the Green Mountain Audubon Center recently announced a similar move.

The sailing center opened camp registrations for a week in January. Parents could sign up for a maximum of two camps. Once registration closed, the center went through a selection process, taking into account various factors, including whether campers had participated in sailing center camps before and whether siblings needed to be in the same session. Families that were chosen had a few days to claim their spots before the center opened them up to whoever was next on the list.

“This way, hopefully, more people can get in,” Nagle said. He couldn’t say for sure yet whether the process worked as intended, since it was still going on, but he pointed to Shelburne Farms, which has been doing registration this way for years.

When contacted, Megan Camp, Shelburne Farms executive vice president and program director, said its camps have used a lottery system for 20 years or so. She’s now seeing more programs adopting this approach. “It’s definitely a trend,” she said.

For Shelburne Farms, the lottery eliminated the stress of being ready to sign up precisely when registration opened and kept a few families from monopolizing the open spots for multiple weeks each summer. That makes for a different experience for those families but gives more kids access to the programs.

“I know how stressful it’s been for parents,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a perfect system.”

Get on the wait list

Camp started working at Shelburne Farms in 1983 and has seen the educational programs evolve. She recommends that parents sign up for the camp admissions lottery and, if they don’t get a spot, sign up for the wait list.

“Don’t give up hope,” she said. Their camps are seeing “a lot more cancellations” than they used to. She suspects that’s true of other programs, too. “Today, there’s a good chance you’ll get in,” she said.

And even if it doesn’t work out this year, Camp urged parents to sign up again next year. Kids might be more likely to get in on the second try because many camps want to make access more equitable.

Try a different camp

Even with the lottery system, it would be impossible for Shelburne Farms to meet the full demand for its camps, Camp said. That’s why she was happy when nearby New Village Farm and Bread & Butter Farm, both in Shelburne, started offering their own programs.

In a similar vein, Nagle advises parents to look at some of the joint programs that the sailing center offers with partners, including Burlington Paint & Sip Studio and GROW Prenatal & Family Center. They often have spaces after others have filled. The same is true of the more advanced sailing camps.

Families can also look to programs run by schools and town recreation departments, which may not have finalized their schedules yet.

Another option: Some sleepaway camps, including YMCA Camp Abnaki in North Hero and YWCA Camp Hochelaga in South Hero, offer day camps, too, and provide shuttles to and from various pick-up spots.

Meredith Breiland said that this summer, she’s trying something new: sleepaway camp. Her older daughter is finally eligible, and Breiland said her alumna status gave her a boost in line. Breiland thinks that’s “ridiculous” and possibly a harbinger of what’s to come with the college application process, but she’ll take it.

She signed up her daughter on November 1. “Locking this in was key to scheduling the rest of our summer,” she said. 

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