The plotting begins in the weeks - sometimes months - before students' holiday vacations.

Parents huddle to arrange strategically planned play dates, find programs, secure babysitters, and request concurrent days off if all else fails.

The holidays equal a week or more of free time for the children and a dilemma for their parents. Mom and Dad scramble to keep their children entertained, busy, and cared for at a time when the parents may not be on vacation themselves.

"It's very challenging," said Hillary Marcus, a mother of two and physician from Upper Dublin. "It takes a lot of preparation and balancing."

Interim care during extended holiday breaks and individual days off from school requires parents to be creative, said Bobette Thompson, president of the National Association of Child Care Professionals. Vacation care is especially challenging in a culture in which families have moved farther away from grandparents and extended family members, who traditionally filled in the gaps, Thompson said.

For some families, that may mean that a group of parents gets together to coordinate shared day care. One mother or father takes care of the children on one day, another the next. Families may join together to hire a sitter. Or a father may take off part of the time needed to care for the children and the mother the rest.

That's the case for Cari Lucey, a health-care consultant from Media, whose 2-year-old daughter, Julia, is on vacation from day care.

"I have to use my vacation time, but I look at it as time I wouldn't be able to spend with her," Lucey said. "So while it's kind of a hardship, it's also kind of fun."

Once care is secured, the next question is often about activities beyond watching television or playing video games.

Tracey Gilligan, a mother of two who writes a blog about family activities offered in Delaware County, is bombarded with e-mails from families during holiday breaks.

"I've had some parents e-mail me for ideas because they are the [caretaker] family of the day in their [housing] development," Gilligan said. "I've had grandparents e-mail me, saying, 'I'm stuck with the kids for a couple of days, are there any story times going on?' "

Gilligan and Thompson say increasing options are available for parents to help solve both the day-care and things-to-do dilemma. New programs are popping up - joining longtime programs such as those at the YMCAs - that can help ease the vacation pressure.

Friends School Haverford offers its students a "vacation care" program of arts, crafts, field trips, and even moviemaking. In Haddonfield, little girls play games and dress-up during a two-day Magical Mini Princess Camp. Gymnastics, basketball, hockey, and baseball "holiday camps" are run throughout the region, and a five-day primer in stagecraft at the Hedgerow Theatre in Media can turn into a role in a January production of Oliver.

Architect Laura Poltronieri Tang enrolled her two children in the Hedgerow program. Their participation in something more than watching television over the break assuaged a bit of parental guilt, Tang said.

"I know the kids are not just somewhere being taken care of. They are being creative and learning a lot, and it's helping to build their self-esteem," Tang said.

The program, which is four years old, costs $300, and discounts and scholarships are available.

With increasing alternatives for holiday breaks, Thompson and Ellen Warren, a coordinator of the American Camp Association Expo in Bucks County, urge parents to research programs and ask questions to ensure a program's safety and reliability.

At Friends School Haverford, a new vacation care program was started two years ago after Michael Zimmerman became head of school. Zimmerman and Mwazhuwa Kuretu, the school's extended-day programs director, were colleagues at Friends Select in Center City, where they worked on a similar program.

"It's been a lifesaver," said Betsy Havens, whose son Matthew Campbell Fuller, 5, attends the school's winter break program. "I'm a divorced parent and I work full time. I couldn't do without it."

The program is offered two weeks in December, and also during the school's spring break. About seven students have participated during the holiday. At the small school of 110 students, officials are satisfied with the numbers but would like to see more.

On Thursday, Kuretu and four of the students went to the Please Touch Museum in Fairmount Park.

Lily Forbes, 9, gives the program an A.

"I like it," said Forbes, a third grader. "It's like being in school and away from school" at the same time.