While some children will scatter to day camps and other activities this summer, for families trying to cut expenses, this may be the time when their kids will stay home alone on a regular basis.

There is no magic age when children are ready for this, although typically they are at least 10 years old, says Colleen Gengler, an educator with the University of Minnesota Extension in Family Development.

"Some children express a desire to stay home alone, while others really don't want to," she said. "Parents need to pay attention to whether the child seems emotionally ready."

There is no law in Minnesota mandating how old a child must be in order to stay alone. Gengler advises parents to check with their county's family-service department for guidelines.

"For parents, it's a matter of assessing whether they think their child has the right level of maturity and has a proven track record of making good decisions," she added.

Sandra Pinski, a Cottage Grove firefighter and emergency medical technician, teaches "Ready to Be Home Alone," a class sponsored by South Washington County's school-district community education. The three-hour workshop, geared for ages 10 and up, was so popular this spring that extra sessions were added.

The class covers such topics as how to handle an emergency, household information, basic first aid, unexpected situations (such as the smoke alarm going off) and general discussions about being home alone.

Each participant receives a workbook containing a variety of tips and suggestions for parents and kids, including a "house rules" page that Pinski strongly encourages families to fill out together after the class.

"Parents definitely need to set the ground rules from the beginning. Kids have to know what is expected," said Pinski.

Topics on the list include chores, whether the oven can be used, if the child can leave the house during the day, when (or if) to answer the phone or door, and expectations when it comes to caring for a pet or sibling. The issue of siblings, in fact, frequently comes up in her classes.

"They ask, 'How do I get my brother or sister to listen to me?'" she said. "That's why I suggest to parents that even if there are two kids staying home together, someone has to be in charge. There has to be a decisionmaker. In my classes, 99 percent of the kids are the ones who will take on that role."

With the unpredictability of Minnesota's summer weather, kids also express concern about what to do when severe weather strikes during the day.

"We talk about the difference between watches and warnings, and go over the safe places in their house where they should go," she said.

Pinski suggests that parents leave their work numbers with a trusted neighbor because, if the child has a cell phone and loses it during the day or gets locked out of the house, odds are they wouldn't know the numbers right off the top of their heads.

A successful summer -- with confident kids-- starts with having a plan.

"They will feel much more secure if they have been given rules to follow and a structure to their day," Gengler said.

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer. Have an idea for the Your Family page? E-mail us at tellus@startribune.com with "Your Family" in the subject line.