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How to Pick the Right Summer Camp for Kids

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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