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Sticker-shocked parents plan now for children’s summer activities

Robert Neubecker

Spring is finally here, and with it the hope of warmer days and the promise of summer just around the corner.

But for many parents, summer school break evokes thoughts less about lemonade and lazy days and more about the anxiety of keeping children occupied and the additional financial strain that comes with that.

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And spring itself may be no picnic for parents still scrambling to secure nannies, or competing for spots at day care centers and summer camps, given that some parents start reserving those at the start of the new year.

Melanie Feehan of Plymouth works on her daughter Leela’s hair.

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

Melanie Feehan of Plymouth works on her daughter Leela’s hair.

“Once you kind of get the Christmas tree put away, that’s when everyone starts” looking for options, said Charlene DeLoach, a Metrowest-area mom and lawyer who is putting together a summer plan for the first time for her 20-month-old daughter and 5-year-old son. “I’ve seen a lot of my friends who’ve gone through this; they wait until April when the weather is good, and all the spots are gone. All the camps are sold out. You can do camps in another town, but maybe that camp only goes to 3 p.m. Or maybe you live in Framingham and the camp you want is in Weston and you work in Waltham, but end up with the one in Southborough. It’s not on your way.”

Last year, US families were projected to pay an average of $856 per child on summer activities, up 40 percent from 2012, according to a survey from the American Express Spending and Saving Tracker.

This summer, the average is expected to climb higher nationally, but even more so for families in the Northeast, where the cost of services is much higher, according to a company spokeswoman.

Melanie Feehan enjoyed time last summer in the family’s pool in Plymouth, with daughters Shannon (left), 11, and Leela, 10.

Melanie Feehan enjoyed time last summer in the family’s pool in Plymouth, with daughters Shannon (left), 11, and Leela, 10.

Full-time and part-time working parents in Massachusetts who juggle the cost of day care with activities such as day camps, clubs, or day trips can easily find themselves paying upwards of $500 a week, or up to $6,000 a summer, per child, said DeLoach, 40, who has been sharing her parenting experience for the past four years on her popular blog Metrowest Mamas .

Melanie Feehan’s daughter Shannon enjoyed a trip to Maine last summer.

Melanie Feehan’s daughter Shannon enjoyed a trip to Maine last summer.

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Parents who turn to online care provider sites for help finding summertime nannies, for instance, often have to pay sign-up fees ranging from $500 to $2,000, and then pay the nanny an hourly wage of $15-$20, DeLoach said.

“If you have the nanny now take them to some local jump-around place, some art class, you’re paying for those things on top of everything else,” she said.

It doesn’t help that Massachusetts consistently ranks highest, or among the top 10, in nationwide averages for annual cost of child care. According to the latest Child Care Aware report, the state tied with Maine in 2012 as the sixth-least affordable for center-based care for a 4-year-old, at an average annual cost of $12,176. However, it is among the most affordable nationwide for center-based care for school-aged children, with an annual average cost of $4,378.

The high cost of child care is something that Melanie Feehan of Plymouth is finding out the hard way. The mother of four children — ages 19, 16, 11, and 10 — has re-entered the workforce after 20 years of being a stay-at-home mom and social media consultant and is trying to piece together a summer care plan. She is finding a vast difference between what summers were like when she was a first-time mom and what they are now.

Blogger Niri Jaganath kept her daughters, Bela, 6, and Jia, 8, busy last summer, with trips to a local farm to pick strawberries.

Blogger Niri Jaganath kept her daughters, Bela, 6, and Jia, 8, busy last summer, with trips to a local farm to pick strawberries.

“Our culture has changed where we are now so kid-centric, where we’re pushing them harder than 15 years ago to do more activities,” said Feehan, 44. “It was really not expensive back then. We would have playground programs; we wouldn’t even pay $100. It was affordable, maybe $6 an hour, which is grossly different from what I’m paying now for a baby-sitter at $15 an hour.”

Feehan, who parlayed her successful blogging career into what she called her dream job in a public relations firm in Boston, said she and her husband estimate they will spend upwards of $25,000 a year in child care and activities starting June 1 when her work hours go full time. Because most of the expenses will go toward full-time child care, Feehan said she will not enroll her daughters Shannon, 11, and Leela, 10, in full-day summer programs to prevent what she called “double jeopardy” — paying someone to take them to paid activities.

Jia Kumar, 8, and her sister Bela, 6, read historical biographies at Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield last summer.

Jia Kumar, 8, and her sister Bela, 6, read historical biographies at Lake Quannapowitt in Wakefield last summer.

Instead, Feehan will turn to her local recreation department, which provides myriad week-long programs and clinics for children of all ages from an arts and crafts class at $75 per child, to a junior rowing clinic at $150 per child.

Gilda Aliberti, a part-time project manager and mother of two from Billerica, said taking advantage of the programs offered by a community’s parks and recreation department is a sound and affordable way to go for parents who are overwhelmed and sticker-shocked by summertime scheduling. Summer, she said, doesn’t have to be a budget-buster.

“There are definitely a lot of options out there,” said Aliberti, 40, who has dedicated much of her blog, Evan and Lauren’s Cool Blog , to listing affordable events, deals, and giveaways for parents. “The biggest thing is planning. Oftentimes it sneaks up on you and boom, suddenly it’s summer and all the spots are filled out. Now it’s probably the perfect time to get started and definitely have a plan in place for next month.”

Discounts can be found everywhere, if you know where to look, Aliberti said. Parents looking into day or sleep-away camps should look into camp open houses hosted locally to see all the choices in one place, compare pricing, and take advantage of early bird registration discounts.

Charlene DeLoach, who blogs on Metrowest Mamas, said her 5-year-old son’s favorite spot is a swing in the backyard.

Charlene DeLoach

Charlene DeLoach, who blogs on Metrowest Mamas, said her 5-year-old son’s favorite spot is a swing in the backyard.

Local libraries are a treasure trove of discounts, offering free or reduced-price passes to attractions like children’s museums and zoos, she said, adding that parents should be reserving those now.

“Between the library and the recreation department, I’m always amazed at how many low-cost things there are,” she said. “Kids don’t know if something costs $100 or $2.”

Joining the e-mail lists or social media pages of attractions popular with youngsters, like laser tag or amusement parks, as well as signing up to receive daily deals from sites like Amazon Local and Groupon can yield lots of discounts without much effort, she added.

“Have a little forethought to go online,” Aliberti said. “Without things like that, in a week you can spend $500-$600 just on activities.”

Niri Jaganath, founder of the popular blog Mommy Niri and whose Twitter following teeters near 12,000, took her two daughters’ activities to a new level last summer when she decided to start her own camp. The former engineer who lives north of Boston (like DeLoach, she prefers not to say where her family lives because of the popularity of her blog) and works from home, said she became overwhelmed last year with the routine of rushing from activity to activity.

“I didn’t get to know my kids as much. I felt I was just keeping up with school, I felt I needed to get back to know my kids,” Jaganath said. “So I just declared I’m going to have ‘Niri Camp’ and I had absolutely no idea it would blow up as much as it did.”

She blogged about her efforts and created the Twitter and Instagram hash tag, #niricamp13, inviting others to see the types of fun and educational activities she put together for her daughters Jia, 8, and Bela, 6. A beach trip, for instance, would become a discussion about the quality of the water that would lead to an at-home experiment.

Many of the activities focused on STEM education (an acronym for science, technology, engineering, and math) and were free or low-cost. The use of the hash tag helped inspire a slew of parents locally and nationally, she said, adding she will have a downloadable how-to ready by next month for parents looking to start their own camps this summer.

Jaganath said that while it’s hard to say exactly how much she saved with Niri Camp, compared with the “mishmash of camps” her daughters were enrolled in previous summers, she said it was cheaper.

“You have to take the time to do it, but it’s worth it,” said the 40-year-old. “As a parent you get worried about summer, all this pressure, but kids don’t care. Just plan.”

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

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