“I don’t want to go to camp. I just want time to hang out.” Those were the words of my 12-year-old daughter when I mentioned summer. And then the parental anxiety set in. I knew in my heart that my middle-schooler was too old to go to that wonderful day camp that kept her busy and active all day long, but I also knew that letting her “hang out” all day would translate into too many unproductive hours in front of the TV or on the computer or the telephone. What’s a parent to do?

Luckily, there are alternatives. More and more recreation centers, schools, museums, even colleges are catering to this age group with classes and summer programs. Volunteer centers are often looking for young preteens and teens to lend a hand. And it’s never too early to cultivate the entrepreneurial spirit. This age group may be beyond the general day camp approach so the key is cultivating special interests your preteen or teen has and being creative in finding programs to match. Don’t be surprised if no single program will fill up your preteen’s summer days, but by being resourceful, you can find a number of activities to make this an active, engaging summer, and still reserve a little time “just to hang out.” Here are 10 tips to get you started. And do start early in planning for programs that require advance registration. Popular programs generally fill up quickly.

Ask at your child’s school

Many middle and high schools run special enrichment programs during the summer and/or can offer parents suggestions on summer activities.

Check with local community colleges and universities

Many community colleges and universities host summer programs for middle and high school students on their campuses. It’s a great way to introduce these students to what’s ahead, to get them thinking about higher education, and what they need to learn in middle and high school in order to succeed in college.

Point Park University in Pittsburgh, PA, for example, hosts several week-long classes with enticing subject matter on their campus specifically geared to middle-school and high-school students. Offerings include an introduction to cartoon art, learning how to build “cool things” in an engineering class, applying math to woodworking and radio theater. Scholarships are available.

Check with your local library about summer programs

Many collect resources on summer programs. Most libraries will also have books with resources on teen summer activities, as well as community bulletin boards with fliers advertising local programs.


Middle-schoolers may be too young to work but many are just the right age to volunteer. Check with local food banks, hospitals, libraries, senior centers and humane societies. Churches and recreation centers with summer programs for children often look for younger teens to be assistants or junior counselors to help older teens serving as paid counselors.

Up for an adventure?

There are many organized adventure camps and outdoor skills camps that offer programs for middle- and high-school students. The National Outdoor Leadership School lists classes by activity and age-level on their Web site. Outward Bound offers special classes for young teens and tweens that are geared to give younger teens “a chance to master new skills, experience physical and group challenges and uncover newfound confidence.”

Follow their interests

Whether it’s sports, art, music, drama, computers, animals, cooking or carpentry, you’re bound to find a summer program that fits the bill. The local soccer, tennis or softball league may offer a summer camp and competitive play. Many communities are home to local theater companies geared to youth, offering classes and the opportunity to perform. The Marin Theatre Company in Northern California, for example, offers several theater camps with classes in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoon, as well as internship programs.

The American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO) offers summer soccer day camps in communities around the country. While younger players learn game basics, preteens benefit from intensive technical and tactical sessions.

At the nonprofit Pets in Need animal shelter in Redwood, CA, tweens and teens can take short courses about animal care and also volunteer.  Look for similar programs at animal shelters near your home.

Cybercamps offers camps at 50 locations across the United States (mostly on college campuses) for youth ages 7-18. Courses include video game creation, flash animation, robotics, Web design and more.

The payoff from encouraging your young teen’s interests can help down the road with college admissions. Colleges look kindly upon applicants who have cultivated their passions and mastered skills.

Learn a skill that will pay off in later work

If your preteen qualifies as a Red Cross certified lifeguard or babysitter by taking a class this summer, he may be able to find a job using his skills next summer. Check with your local Red Cross to see what’s offered in your neighborhood.

Encourage entrepreneurship

If your preteen or teen balks at being part of any organized program, tell him to create his own summer job. He can offer his services in the neighborhood as a dog walker, summer gardener, fence painter or one who picks up the mail and waters plants for neighbors on vacation. “Middle school kids can take kids to local parks, or begin a book club and invite younger kids to join and facilitate sessions,” says Kathy Glass, a former California middle school teacher and currently an education consultant. Help him to design a flier describing services and fees that he can pass out in the neighborhood. Set up a college bank account for his earnings or designate a charity where he’ll send the money.

Investigate summer programs at museums and zoos

Many museums and zoos offer summer classes and volunteer opportunities for preteens and teens. The San Francisco Zoo, for example, has a summer zoo camp as well as opportunities to volunteer, working with animals. The Smithsonian offers a wide array of youth summer classes and programs at its museums in Washington. DC.

Get your preteen thinking about future careers by arranging a few “job shadow” days. Do you know people who are doctors, lawyers, computer engineers, carpenters or bakers? Ask friends if they would be willing to allow your preteen to “shadow” them as they work for a few hours over several days. Having an opportunity to see adults in different work environments can be inspiring and will get your preteen or teen thinking about what she might want to do when she grows up, and what she’ll need to study to prepare for her future career.