Tips for Choosing Kids’ Camps
Expert advice for matching your child to the right summer camp experiences.
It’s not too soon to start thinking about and planning for summer camps. Trust me on this. My daughter loves drama—including the kind performed on a stage for the entertainment of others—so a few summers ago she decided on the one-and-only performance camp that would make her life complete the following summer. She even saved her own pennies toward the considerable tuition. A few weeks before the start date, I dutifully called to register her. The receptionist—with a really unnecessary snort—informed me that that camp always sells out within days and had been full for three months with a long waiting list. What?! What kind of parenting ninja plans that far ahead? All of them but me, apparently. And that is when the award-worthy, one-performance-only drama took place in my kitchen.
Don’t be like me. Think of summer camp registration as Black Friday—the good stuff goes quickly (STEM and robotics camps are the hot ticket this summer). Here’s advice from the experts to help you be well informed, strategic, and prepared.
If you’ve ever traveled abroad and returned to find yourself paralyzed in the cosmetics aisle of an American supermarket—how can there be 1,500 kinds of what is essentially soap?—then you’ll recognize the overwhelming nature of choosing a summer camp. Parents, this is not the same game as when we were kids. There’s every variation of science, academics, language, sports, cooking, leadership, wilderness, circus, survival, visual and performing arts, day camps, overnight camps, travel camps, and even “van camps” that have no headquarters but instead take kids on daily “learning-adventure” road trips.
Teresa Cirrincione, summer camp coordinator at the Arvada Center, suggests two approaches: “Some parents use the summer camp experience to expose their children to new things and let them explore activities that they’ve never tried,” she explains. “A more general half- or full-day camp that includes several kinds of activities works well for younger kids, or kids who haven’t yet discovered their specific interests and passions. Then as children get older, and develop specific interests and passions, you can choose longer and more targeted camps.”
Day or Away?
Day camps are a good starting point for young children and first-time campers. They stay local and you stay updated on what’s happening every day. Consider signing up with friends. Parents can share the driving and campers have a buddy for courage.
If your child does well at sleepovers, follows directions at school, and jumps eagerly into new activities, he might be ready for a sleep-away camp. Many introductory programs—of three to seven days—are open to campers as young as seven, but not every seven-year-old is ready for that independence. A good rule of thumb is, the younger your child, the more she, rather than you, should make the decision.
Once you have an idea of what you’re looking for, there is an abundance of search tools and services at your fingertips. Colorado Parent puts out a summer camp guide each year, and there are various camp search websites such as kidscamps.com or summercamps.com which include videos, reviews by campers and their parents, and other details. However, guides, websites, and marketing blurbs don’t always tell the whole story. Don’t hesitate to call a camp and talk to the director or the instructors for more information.
For a free, extensive consultation to determine the best options for your child’s needs and interests, check out The Camp Experts & Teen Summers. They have 47 offices around the world staffed by full-time experts with hands-on experience in regional, national, and international camp programs in all categories.
“Our experts are highly-trained and take parents through all the criteria and questions to find the best fit,” says Jack Driben, president of Camp Experts. “We visit these camps and programs first-hand, so we’re able to guide families in a personal way.”
If this will be your child’s first sleep-away camp, start with an option that involves a shorter stay. If your kiddo is an old pro, you can look for anything from a week to a month or more. If you have a teen who has aged out of most camp programs, Camp Experts can help you find an internship, gap year, college prep, community service, or other teen-specific program to make her summer amazing.
When And Where?
Whether day camp or sleep-away, start your search based on the dates you have available. Popular one- or two-week camps usually offer multiple sessions within the summer, whereas multiple-week camps will likely only run one time. If your heart is set on a specific four-week-long camp, you’ll want to plan your other summer activities around those dates. If you’re just looking to fill four weeks with boredom-fighting activities, the possibilities abound.
Driving to and from a day camp each day can present some logistical challenges for a family, so for the next step in your search, determine a convenient geographic radius. The American Camp Association website provides a list of accredited member camps by zip code and areas of focus. You may discover that a simple day camp in a neighbor’s garage can be every bit as valuable as an expensive, all-frills professional program, as long as you know what questions to ask.
Here are a few important questions to consider:
Who Are These People?
- Are all the instructors background-checked, with references, an interview, and a criminal records search?
- What credentials and experience do they have teaching their content-area and working with children? How are they hired and trained?
- What is the staff-to-camper ratio? (Recommended 10 to one for kids ages eight to 14)
- Is the program accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA), which conducts on-site visits and reviews programs, facilities, and hiring and safety policies?
- What kind of return rate does the program boast? Fifty percent or higher is a good indicator.
- How long has this program been around? “People are often eager to try the newest, trendiest things,” says Timeri Tolnay, whose daughter Zoe attended a month-long camp in the San Juan Islands last summer. “But there’s definitely value in longevity. Programs that have been around awhile have figured some things out.”
What’s Really Going On Here?
- Is the content and philosophy age appropriate? “With camps and classes for younger children, we focus much more on the process than the product,” says Lisa Leafgreen, director of education at the Arvada Center. “Tweens and teens are developmentally ready for a polished production or project, but younger kids need to explore and experiment.”
- Are there any extra fees or materials required?
- What is the classroom environment like? What are behavior expectations and how are they applied?
- What are the procedures for ensuring safety? How are parents notified about upcoming events, illness, or injury?
For Overnight Camps
- Can/will my child contact me during the camp?
- Can I send care packages?
- What are the procedures and rules regarding medication? Cell phones? Laundry?
- What is a sample menu? How are dietary restrictions handled?
The Bottom Line
For many families, cost is more of the top, rather than the bottom line. It’s true that those summer-long excursions through Asia or Europe present a significant hit to the pocketbook, but just as there are camps for all interests, there are camps for all budgets. Camp costs vary as dramatically as the camps themselves, and scholarships are available.
Virtually all sleep-away camps, and many day camps, have scholarship programs, or can refer you to outside foundations, such as the John Austin Cheley Foundation. In addition to partnering with camps in Estes Park, Durango, and Florissant, this foundation provides scholarships to kids all around the country.
Family members may appreciate the opportunity to contribute toward an unforgettable experience as a gift.
“Our kids just know that their Christmas gifts from Grandma will be their summer camp tuition,” says Bethany Ormiston. “It’s so much better than a toy that will be forgotten.”
You may not realize that day camps fall under the same tax guidelines as daycare, meaning you can use your flex plan, or write off the expense. Also, many camps give alumnae, sibling, or buddy discounts, so recruit a friend or two.
“Zoe attended the same camp that her dad and grandma attended when they were her age,” says Tolnay. “She wants to go back because she loved ‘the lifestyle’ of no technology, hanging out in nature with friends every day. Honestly they just do the things we all did as kids, but kids don’t do those things anymore. Camp gives them that chance.”