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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.

Doing Your Homework on Day Camp

Clearly, when you're choosing a day camp, your options are limited to places close to home. But you'll still likely have a choice, which is why, Smith says, it's smart to talk with camp directors before making any decisions. Good camps expect to hear from you during the selection process. "When we get an enrollment off the Internet and we don't know the family, we call them," says Bill Jones, director of Camp Lake Hubert and Camp Lincoln in Lake Hubert, MN. "We want parents to know us, and we want to know our parents and kids."

The best camps always have someone who can talk with you before, during, or after camp, or will find someone to return your call. They will always have parental references for you to speak with, and many larger ones hold open houses. What should you look for? While there are specific qualities that make some camps better for a certain child than others (a kid who loves art, for instance, might not be a good fit at a place that's all about horses), keep an eye out for these key things:

 

  • A history. There are definitely great new camps out there. But some experts (and families) believe that operating a camp for decades, especially with the same staff, does mean something. In today's world, a camp simply couldn't stay in business for generations if it were unsafe or poorly run.

  • A philosophy. Does it focus on sports? Arts? Leadership? How is this philosophy integrated into its programs?

  • An emphasis on creating community. Good camps think about how they place kids together to create the most inclusive experience for all. Another hallmark of community: a scholarship program.

  • A well-trained staff, in adequate numbers for a low campers-to-staffers ratio (about 10 to 1 for kids ages 8 to 14). The staff should be background-checked, too, with references, an interview, and a criminal-records search.

  • An element of choice. Your child will feel more independent if he can choose some activities.

  • A communications plan for letting parents know about upcoming events, and for notifying them if a child becomes sick or injured. They also have a consistent policy on camper phone use.

  • A high standard of accreditation. See "Doing a Background Check" on page 4.

 

In particular, make sure you understand the program's values and mission, and see if its activities match both its goals and your child's interests. You're looking for something educational but not merely an extension of school or daycare: "A day camp should be different, with a wide range of activities your child wouldn't otherwise have access to, that get him up and moving and building new skills," says Smith.

Sleepaway Smarts

Once your child has attended day camp for several years, you might want to consider sleepaway camp. Many will accept campers as young as second grade for introductory programs that run a week or so. But while some 7-year-olds are ready, others aren't. A rule of thumb from my old camp director, Jane Sanborn of Sanborn Western Camps, in Florissant, CO: the younger your child, the more she, rather than you, should make the decision.

My daughter's positive experience is common among kids attending the best and oldest sleepaway camps. They boast return rates of at least 50 percent, and many former campers send their own children back.

So your child stands a good chance of having a great time. But how about you? You may worry about his health or safety, or homesickness. Sanborn notes that camp will help parents with one of their key jobs. "They need to give their children chances to develop the skills that will enable them to live on their own as adults," she says.

There are other reasons to contain (or at least hide) your jitters, adds Jones. Your anxiety can negatively impact your child. Your last words to him before you drive away shouldn't be a promise that you'll come get him if things don't work out, he cautions. "The first hard thing that a child encounters, he remembers what you've said," he explains. "You've in effect told him that camp might not be right for him. It can really be self-fulfilling." Instead, he says, act positive. Knowing that you see him as capable and independent will help him both as he starts camp and in the long run.

Another problem: kids who show up with cell phones. "If a child can talk to or text Mom at any moment, she isn't letting go and integrating," says Steve Sudduth, co-director of the nation's oldest summer camp for girls, Wyonegonic, in Denmark, ME. Many camps don't allow cell phones or calls home except for an in-camp birthday. Good camps send frequent updates, though, and have kids write letters regularly.

Still, what if you (or your child) can't stand the thought of being so detached? Well, perhaps camp isn't the right fit. Or maybe that's precisely why you need it. "If you are successful as a parent, your child is going to leave you at some point," says Sanborn. "Do you really want that to be when he's eighteen? A child's first experience away from you is part of the process of parenting and should be a happy, exciting growth experience for him and for you as well."

Finding a Way-Cool Camp

Today's options are far more varied than you might remember from your own childhood. There are camps that focus on music and theater, arts and science, language, sports, circus themes, and computers. There are even "van camps" that have no headquarters but instead take kids on daily road trips to parks and other areas of local interest.

Check in with organizations your child already likes: Many, such as community centers and sports facilities, offer summer sessions that may not be advertised. Hit the web, too -- on the American Camp Association's site (campparents.org), you can look up accredited member camps by zip code and areas of focus. Mysummercamps.com includes reviews by campers and their parents.

Doing a Background Check

You probably assume that all children's summer camps must meet state standards. The surprising truth? States' oversight is spotty at best. Ask camps if they're accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA), which conducts on-site visits and reviews programs, facilities, and hiring and safety policies. Only the most professionally run camps qualify. If a camp lacks the ACA nod, it may still be a high-quality program, but you'll need to ask more questions. "Accreditation is the best evidence that a camp has made a commitment to their child's health and safety," says the ACA's Peg Smith.

Making Camp Affordable

How much do you have to pay for your kid to have a summer of fun? Camp costs vary dramatically around the country, from just a couple hundred dollars to more than five thousand (the latter mainly for super-fancy, all-summer sleepaway programs). If tough times are making it hard for you to swing a summer program of any kind, don't give up: There are more solutions than you might imagine. Day camps fall under the same tax guidelines as daycare, so if you pay for daycare with a flex plan, or write off these expenses, you can do the same for day camp. Also, virtually all sleep-away camps (and a good number of day camps, too) have scholarship programs for families who need it. If you attended a camp as a child, you may find that your alum status qualifies you for special consideration for financial aid. Camps also can refer you to outside foundations, such as the Cheley Foundation in Colorado, which exist solely to provide camp scholarships to kids around the country.

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