Margaret Webb Pressler, The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - So now that you're finished with the shopping, returning, family-visiting and New Year's celebrating, here's something else you should do: Plan your child's summer.

According to the summer camp industry, if you're not thinking six months out, you're already behind.

"Now, about 31 percent of the camps we work with start signing kids up as early as September," said Peg Smith, chief executive of the American Camp Association. "One, it's never too early, and two, it's getting earlier."

It's almost too much for some parents to bear.

"Oh, good, once I finish the Christmas anxieties, I can start the camp anxieties," said Leslie Bowie, of Silver Spring, Md., the working mother of 8- and 13-year-old kids. Her older child has decided he's no longer interested in the day camp he's gone to for years, Bowie says. "We're talking about how we're going to deal with that."

About 6.2 million kids went to camp last summer, both day and overnight, up from fewer than 5 million five years ago, according to the National Camp Association. Both private and nonprofit camps are rushing to accommodate the demand, expanding enrollment, opening new facilities and signing families up earlier each year.

Directors say camp is gaining popularity for a variety of reasons. Working parents need child care once school is out, camps have diversified to offer more specialized programs, and adults are eager to see kids get the kind of old-fashioned outdoor play they themselves had growing up.

"One of the things that's happening is childhood is moving indoors," said David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and the author of the just-released book "The Power of Play." "Summer camp is a place where kids can be out of doors. It begins to reacquaint them with the natural world, which is so important."

Smaller camps with specialized programs that offer instruction in activities such as basketball or horseback riding or have a particular academic or religious focus are especially in demand.

"You have some camps, some Jewish, some in the private sector, that frankly are filled on August 31 for the next summer," said Jerry Silverman, president of the Foundation for Jewish Camping.

The nonprofit and less expensive programs also are booked early, said Gary Forster, camping specialist for the YMCA of the United States. The YMCA operates 265 residential camps nationwide, many of which have been full for a while, such as Camp Belknap and Camp Coniston in New Hampshire. The 2,000 day camps run by the YMCA have increased enrollment by about 4 percent in each of the past two years.

"Our population is not growing in that perfect camping age of 8 to 14, but camping is," he said.

Yet camp is not cheap -- and some fees can rival college tuition. Nonprofit day camps can start at just $100 a week while the average cost for private camp is about $300. Nonprofit residential camps run $250 to $600 a week, but at the upper end, parents could spend $2,000 a week to send a child to a scuba-diving camp in the Caribbean.

"By December, you might not be totally left out ... but you might not get [what] you want," said Nancy Soschin, who runs the camp counseling service Summer Solutions.

Already booked

Julie Friedman, of Cabin John, Md., already has signed up her 9-year-old son for Camp Caribou in Maine for three weeks next summer. She started her search last spring because she wanted to make sure the family could visit several camps before choosing one. They made the rounds this summer on their annual trip to visit family in New Hampshire, and fell in love with Caribou.

"I really wanted to be able to look at camps while they were going on," Friedman said, careful to point out that she doesn't normally plan her life two years in advance. "It's a lot of money" -- $5,100 for a three-week session, $8,350 for the full seven weeks -- "and you're sending your child there, so we kind of felt we wanted to see it."

It's good she acted early, because Camp Caribou is already 90 percent full, according to Bill Lerman, who owns and runs the camp with his wife, Martha. "I've tracked this since 1972 and this is the earliest year we've ever had," he said. "I think camp today is filling a tremendous void," so its popularity makes sense to him.

"In many places today, kids don't come home and jump into their play clothes and run out and play," he says, "so camp has become the neighborhood playground."