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How to Pick the Right Summer Camp for Kids

It's much more than s'mores and sing-alongs: Top camps provide lifelong memories and skills. Here's how to pick a winner -- and help your kid have an awesome summer.

Even before I had kids, I knew they'd go to summer camp. I had spent literally decades (as a camper, staffer, and director) at my own sleepaway camp. What child of mine wouldn't want to do the same?

But my daughters turned out to be homebodies who didn't want to leave for a day, let alone overnight. My husband had never gone to camp himself and liked having everyone close in the summer. Faced with an uphill battle, I began to lose perspective. What did camp really matter, anyway?

It's a question many parents struggle with -- and one that camp professionals are eager to answer. Camp, they say, lets kids roam and play in a way they rarely do in their own neighborhoods these days. It takes them away from computers, TV, and other high-tech time-suckers, swapping them for conversation, fun, and games in a natural setting. And perhaps most important, camps are no-parent zones. "Kids have to learn how to separate from their families and become resilient and independent. Camp gives them a safe way to take these steps," says Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association.

Day camps are a good starting point: "Kids learn about being part of a community and to cope with temporary separation," says Smith. "They're not only a good transitional step for kids but also for parents, who often need to learn these same separation skills."

Camp directors say most kids are ready for an overnight option by age 12 -- especially if they've enjoyed day programs. You just might have to give your child (and yourself) a little push.

That's what I did with my older daughter, Anna, when she reached the magic age. Tearfully, I delivered her to my old camp in Colorado. It was wrenching; her father had approached her impending departure as if preparing for a death in the family. But soon we got a letter from her: "Having too much fun to miss you. Sorry."

Whether you're thinking about sending your child to the little day camp down the street or an overnight outfit a few states away, follow these tips for planning a no-regrets summer.