"Calling all Curtis cousins to Cousin Camp!" reads the invitation Barbara Curtis sends to her grandchildren each summer. "We will play outdoors, walk in the woods, sleep in a tent, cook over a fire, go through a trap door and tell stories." They are instructed to bring clothes that can get dirty, a swimsuit, a cheerful spirit and lots of curiosity but no toys requiring batteries -- and parents are not allowed.
Curtis began the camp a few years back when she realized her four grandchildren living in three states were growing up without getting to know each other.
"You can't have a reunion without first having a union," she says. "I want them to have a connection and a history so that in 30 years, they'll want to be together and they'll have memories to share."
Shelley Lamont, who blogs as "Grandma Shelley" at http://www.grandmaslittlepearls.com, holds two "grandma camps" each year -- one in the summertime and one during the winter holiday season.
These women are part of a growing trend among grandparents to re-create some of the close relationships they and their children enjoyed when families lived nearer to one another and cousins were ready-made friends. The event also strengthens the bonds between the generations.
Both of these grandmas say their grandchildren look forward to camp all year, and they agree that the secret to their success is planning ahead.
"I want to be present with the children during the entire camp," Lamont says, "and being super organized ahead of time helps this to happen."
With that in mind, here are some tips they offer for staging your own family's camp.
--Begin planning well in advance by selecting a theme that can range from music and secret agents to colors, animals and insects.
"This gives me a chance to keep my eyes and ears open for great finds, ideas and affordable resources throughout the year," Lamont says.
It also allows parents to have some input. One family helps build anticipation in the month before camp by rewarding the kids with tickets that can be spent for snacks and trinkets at the camp "store" when they finish their chores.
--Make sure you have all of the supplies you'll need. Lamont packages craft projects in labeled plastic bags and sets up stations where shared materials such as scissors, markers and glue sticks can be easily found.
--Stock up on Band-Aids and antibiotic ointment, sunscreen, tissues, wipes and pump soap. Make sure your camera has batteries. Provide a labeled reusable water bottle for each child.
--Keep the children in suspense about when the camp will be held until the invitations arrive. Lamont's "secret agent" invitation was delivered in a top-secret manila folder with a message inside that had to be decoded as a password to camp.
--When campers arrive, assign each one a corner for stowing his or her belongings and hold a meeting to discuss camp rules. Then Lamont begins the fun with a snack and a craft project, usually a tote bag they can decorate and use to hold the other pieces of art they will create.
--Stick to a posted schedule, but build in some flexibility. Activities can include making art, taking hikes, catching fireflies, having a campfire, telling stories, meeting special guests and going on field trips. Provide a sandbox, dress-up clothes and toys, and build in time for free individual play.
--Check out any fairs, parades or other special events happening in your area, especially those within walking distance of your house. If you must drive to the library or the swimming pool, make sure you have adequate transportation and seat belts for each child.
--Start mealtimes with a game or ritual, and choose kid-friendly foods such as pizza, hot dogs and spaghetti. Lamont's campers make their own foil-packaged dinners. Curtis' healthy snacks include fruit, cheese, hummus, vegetables and yogurt sticks. She has one "crazy food" day in which kids have banana splits for breakfast and stir up messy concoctions their parents wouldn't have time to deal with at home.
--As ages allow, assign children responsibilities for setup and cleaning.
--When the event is over, send kids home with a wearable memento, such as a T-shirt with everyone's name or handprint on it, and ask them to start thinking about ideas for next year's camp.