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How to Choose a Great Summer Camp (It’s not too late!)

My family and I all adored summer camp, which has provided each of us with many of our warmest childhood memories. Camp is a unique and special place, often quite unlike any other in one’s life. Camp can be a place to try new things, experience nature in an unmediated and unhurried way, meet people one wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to, experience personal growth and, above all, have a lot of pure, all-out fun.

There are many wonderful summer camps and, although we’re inching toward summer, many still have openings. It’s not too late to choose a great one. So, how do you choose?

Involve Kids in the Decision

Unless they’re very young, most children will have an opinion about the type of camp experience that appeals to them. Try to have some brochures, DVDs or web sites you can look at together. These might come from a local camp fair, or be downloaded from the Internet. Sometimes the simplest things capture children’s imaginations, such as the local Park and Rec. program that offers an Aloha Week with water play. At the same time, exposing them to a new experience, at the right age, can be very beneficial.

Older children usually know when they’re ready for a “sleepaway” camp, as opposed to a day camp. Day camp experience can help prepare kids for sleepover camp, particularly as a lot of day camps offer overnight outings of increasing length and distance as children get older.

Evaluate Your Family’s Needs

Are both parents working all summer? Consider a camp program or programs that cover the entire season, and/or long days — some camps offer after-care; inquire about additional costs. If you have some flexibility and your child wants to try a couple different types of specialty camps, then perhaps two or more shorter camps will fill the bill. On the other hand, some camps recommend registering for a longer program, so as to have adequate time to adjust and really get comfortable. Discuss the family’s needs and desires.

Camp costs will also factor into your decision. These vary widely. Some camps offer “campership” (scholarship) opportunities..

In addition, many day camps offer bus or van transportation, which could cut down on driving time for the parents. (And the great news is that children usually regard the camp bus as part of the fun. Take it from someone who has been banned from singing 100 Bottles of Beer on the Wall.) Transportation also often carries an extra cost.

Discuss the Camp’s Activities

What does your child envision doing? Whether it’s theater or ceramics, water sports or group games, you’ll want to make sure that activity is offered. Although it’s great to try new things, it can be comforting when some favorite activities are part of the particular camp. Something else to consider is whether the camp is a general camp with lots of activities, or a specialty camp. Both kinds of camps offer tremendous opportunities. First-time campers may enjoy a traditional camp as a way to get their feet wet and begin the camp experience. Also, a traditional camp offers unique experiences children may not have in any other area of their lives. Some specialty camps also offer swimming and outdoor games, as a way to break up the main activity or to get everyone outside for some physical play. If a child is leaning toward a specialty camp, be sure they know that most of the day will be devoted to the primary activity.

Find Out About the Camp’s Structure

Some camps schedule all activities, and others allow for free choice. When age-appropriate, discuss your child’s preferences with him or her. The right match can go a long way toward a successful camp experience.

Explore the Camp’s Setting

How rustic is the camp? Do children sleep in tents, cabins or dorms? Even with day camps, there are camps that meet in local parks and camps in which children travel daily to outdoor adventure spots or amusement parks. What kind of setting appeals to your child and fits his/her comfort level? Inquire about sleeping and dining facilities, and sports and recreational facilities, as well as the camp’s physical setting.

Try to Get a Sense of the Camp’s Philosophy

Although this may be difficult to discern without spending some time in a camp session, there are some questions you can ask that may help you figure out if a camp is a match for your child and family. These include:

What qualities do you look for in a camp counselor?
Where do campers come from?
What ages and genders typically attend the camp?
How long has the director/camp been in operation?
What percentage of campers usually return?
How are bunks or groups determined?
How competitive are camp activities?
Are campers encouraged to try new things?
Do many activities involve the whole camp?
What kind of food is served?
Does the camp have a religious affiliation?
What is the camp policy regarding electronics, spending money, medication, letters from home and parent visits and phonecalls?

Consider the Camp’s Role Regarding your Child’s Social-Emotional Needs

The choice of camp can be especially critical if your child has special needs. Research or ask the camp director whether or not special needs are addressed. Find out, too, about social and emotional needs. Camps have different policies around homesickness and phonecalls to and from home. Find out how the camp handles campers who are not enjoying themselves or who are having trouble fitting into the activities or friendships.

Find Out About the Camp’s Safety Record and Practices

Of course parents want to feel secure when kids are away from home or trying new activities. Here are some questions to ask regarding safety:

Is the camp ACA accredited? (This is a very important camp accreditation from the American Camp Association, which holds high standards for safety and programming. Note that there are fine non-ACA-accredited camps as well.)
Is instruction given in swimming and other new activities?
Are swim instructors certified?
What is the ratio of staff to campers? (According to the ACA, there should be one counselor for every 5-10 campers, depending on ages and needs.)
What is the training for counselors?
What are the ages of the counselors?
How does the camp ensure safety?
What is the general emergency plan?
Are there nearby medical facilities?
Do staff members have medical/emergency training?
Are there outings away from the camp site and, if so, what are the arrangements for transportation, facilities, supervision, etc.?

Find Out About Practicalities

Are there additional costs or fees?
Is there a refund policy?
Will the director supply references?
Can you visit the camp in advance? (Or, if not, is there a video tour?)

Camps can offer lots of great, new experiences in fun, and sometimes beautiful, settings. Some children see the same camp friends year after year, and many grow up with fond memories of their special camp time. It can be wonderful to stick with a favorite camp or seek a new experience. The right focus in spring can help your child and family have a fun and memorable time in summer.

Try American Camp Association’s Find a Camp tool.

See American Camp Association‘s A Camp for Everyone.

Just added: San Francisco Bay Area folks, I just learned about a very cool camp called Camp Galileo that combines art, science and outdoor activities around weekly themes. They have programs for kids ages pre-K to 8th grade, in 38 locations. The camp philosophy encourages fun and learning through experimentation, discovery and innovation. Each camp is a week long, which allows for flexibility. Extended care is offered, too, to help working parents. Campers through 5th grade are grouped by age and participate in one of four themed camps: Medieval Adventure, Space Odyssey, African Safari and (Design your own) Amusement Park. Older kids choose “Summer Quests” that specialize in high technology, building, culinary arts or fine arts. Camp Galileo is partnered with the Tech Museum of Innovation and Chabot Space and Science Camp. Camp parents speak extremely highly of their children’s experiences. Visit the Camp Galileo site to learn more.

Photos by Susan Sachs Lipman

This post is sponsored by Camp Galileo. The views expressed are my own.

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