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Your Guide to Enrolling Kids in Summer Camp

What you need to know to get the camps your kid wants without going crazy or broke.

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Ah, winter! A time for chilly noses, warm drinks, fluffy blankets, new resolutions, and…registering for summer camp? Yep. Believe it or not. While many camps will keep registration open through the spring as long as spots are available, registering early gives you the best chance to get your children in the exact sessions they want, on the weeks that fit your schedule.

“Camp is about much more than learning how to ride a horse or set up a tent—camp is a place where kids learn to be a part of a community, to communicate, build their self-confidence, lead, and make a positive difference in their immediate social community,” says Anna Danila, outdoor program manager for the Girl Scouts of Colorado.

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With a little prep work, you can make sure your kids have that kind of experience this summer.

Ask Around

With hundreds of camps to choose from, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. Experts suggest that an efficient way to start your search is to ask people that you know.

“The first and best way to choose is a personal reference and referral from someone whose child has attended that camp,” says Dr. Larry Curry, family therapist and founder of The Curry Center in Aurora, which provides a variety of services for children and families. Ask for recommendations from other parents at school, sports practice, or on social media. Talk to parents whose kids are older than yours. They’ve been-there-done-that, and can offer insight from personal experience.

Consider Your Favorites

Chances are, your child has favorite spots around town. Maybe she can’t get enough of the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, or he loves cooking classes at the Children’s Museum of Denver. These might be great places to start looking for camps.

“I typically look for camps that fit with (my kids) interests, and if their friends are doing them, then they’re definitely going,” says Missy Crosby, a Littleton mother of three.

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Check with local parks and recreation departments, scout groups, YMCAs, and churches. Many schools will hold summer day camps, too. Look for camps on the American Camp Association (ACA) website—they have more than 2,400 accredited camps in their database with a wide range of focuses (acacamps.org).

Explore the Budget

According to the ACA, the average weekly day camp cost in 2015 was $314, and the average weeklong overnight camp cost was $768—another good reason to start planning for camp early. Money-saving maven Sandra Hanna, CEO of Smart Cookies, says start saving now to financially prepare for camp.

“Set up an online savings account now and use it to save up for summer camp,” Hanna says. She advises setting up weekly automated deposits for $1 to $5—a small amount that will add up by the time kids head off to camp.

Get family to help. If grandparents or other family members are looking for gift ideas, suggest that they contribute to your child’s summer camp fund instead of buying presents.

Look into scholarships. “First, check to see if your chosen summer activity offers a scholarship program that covers all or part of the cost,” says Hanna. “Ask if there are other discounts available. If you’re sending multiple children to the same program, you may qualify for a multi-child discount.”

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Register early. Many programs offer a discount if you register by a certain date. Sign up to receive your favorite camp’s emails so you’re notified as soon as registration opens.

Also check coupon sites. Hanna says many camps will offer generous discounts on sites like Groupon.com and RetailMeNot to drive up enrollment numbers.

Narrowing Down the List

Narrowing down camps to attend can be tough, so make sure this is something you and your child do together. Have him sit next to you so you can read the camp descriptions together online. If you have the option to tour a camp, bring your children along and encourage them to ask questions and voice any concerns. Meeting a staff member or other attendees before the camp starts can help shy or nervous children feel less anxious about trying out a new summer program.

“Every camp has its own unique culture and community—to really get a feel for that community, I suggest calling the director and hearing from them directly about what values are important to their camp,” says Danila.

Be sure you know what behaviors and skills the camp wants kids to have before they attend. Will younger children have a rest time or shorter day? Are there skills that build on things your children haven’t learned yet? Whether touring in person or emailing questions, ask camp staff what a typical schedule looks like for the day.

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Danila suggests asking the camp director what percentage of their staff returns each summer, or were former campers themselves.

“One sign of a great camp staff community is retention, which shows that the staff believe so much in the camp that they will return year after year.”

Curry says you should also ask about staff-to-child ratios, background checks, and plans in case of an emergency. Ask about the training staff receives for things like lifeguarding and first aid.

The ACA has an accreditation procedure as well—all the camps listed in their database voluntarily meet up to 300 health and safety standards related to items such as staff hiring, program quality, and health care.

Of course, you want your kids to be comfortable at whatever camps they attend. The more advanced research you do, the more comfortable you’ll feel about the choice, too.

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Is Your Child Ready for Overnight Camp?

Overnight summer camp can help kids grow in so many ways, but it’s important to know when they’re ready.

“For an overnight camp, I would recommend that your child has had the experience of a successful sleepover at a friend’s house a couple of times. They should be able to take care of basic personal care tasks independently—showering, dressing, and packing for a school day,” says Danila. “Most importantly, she should want to go to camp. A little nervousness is completely natural, but she should also be excited about the possibility of trying new things, making new friends, and spending time away from home in a new environment.”

Curry suggests children are ready for an overnight camp when they begin to show that they can think independently. While all kids are different, many are ready for a short sleepover camp around eight or nine years old.

Before You Register For Camp, Have These Details On Hand:

  1. Planned vacation dates. Most camps ask for payment up front and there can be cancellation fees if you have to back out.
  2. Summer activities budget. Know your budget priorities and set a comfortable amount for camps. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of all the options available, but be sure to leave money for other summer fun.
  3. Kids’ sports and team schedules. If the kids are committed to a team or a certain try-out time and camp dates conflict, talk to your child and decide which is more important for each conflict.
  4. List of mom’s and dad’s summer activities and commitments. Is there a kid’s day camp or activity that coincides with your regular workout times? See where your activities might line up with opportunities for the kids.

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