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What you need to know in choosing a summer camp

summer-campSummer can be a challenging time for parents. Either they need day care options for their children or are trying to curb the cries of ‘I’m bored!’ Summer camps can provide a great outlet for kids’ energy as well as a respite for parents.

“Camp is really important today for children,” said Tom Rosenberg, American Camp Association’s CEO and president. “In school, they are really focusing on that academic core curriculum — common core, iReady, things like that. But at camp, it is very much focused around education but especially around social and emotional skills. Kids are learning how to be part of a group, learning how to make new friends, have disagreements, try new things, take positive risks. They actually learn to fail and learn from failure in a very safe, fun way and then try again to develop resilience.”

But with hundreds of camps in the region, how do parents pick the best camp for their children? And how do they then make sure camp is an enjoyable experience?

Plan early

Most parents start out by getting recommendations from friends and family about which camps to consider. Some will go online to narrow down the selections.

“If you are thinking about camp for your son or daughter for next year (2019), this summer is a great time to look at camps,” Rosenberg said. “Make an appointment to visit some camps you are excited about and bring your child with you and that gives them more of ownership over what is chosen in the end and also helps them to get them excited about it. … You can’t start looking for a camp for your child too early. There are many, many camps and so many good choices.”

The Worton-based Echo Hill Camp offers traditional sleep-away camp activities such as water- and land-based activities, a ropes course and nature projects. Associate director Katie Rice Moulsdale said slots were filling up by the end of January. “Parents should really start looking in October,” she said. “It’s a lot to consider and the parent needs to do a lot of research and try to find the place that is best for their child. We had tons of applications rolling in in October and November.”

The Columbia Association offers a number of day camps including nature-based, sports, STEAM and cooking. Charlie Thomas, Columbia Association camps manager, said people start registering in early to late winter to spring break. “You want to make sure you get the camp you actually want,” he said.

Many camps also offer a percentage off tuition for those who register early and/or are returning campers.

Ask questions

Rosenberg suggested that parents call camp directors and/or staff.

“There are a million questions that you could ask to a camp director to really get a sense of what they are all about,” he said. “No two camps are exactly the same. … To me, a great camp is one where there is a camp director and leadership team that is all about partnering with you as the parent because once your child goes to that camp and they have a blast, they are going to want to go back. Camp directors are your partner in parenting your child while they are at camp. You want to see how well you establish a relationship with that camp director on the phone.”

Parents may also ask what they can expect in terms of communication once their child is there, especially regarding sleep-away camps. “A good camp director really gets that (parents may be nervous) and they spend a lot of time trying to help parents,” he said. “Today, parents can be as nervous if not more nervous than the camper, so it is important the camp director help that parent feel comfortable before camp and once camp gets started so mom and dad can relax.”

Other questions include asking about medical care facilities and on-site staff; where do the kids go on trips and what type of vehicles they will be riding in; and if spending money is needed or is everything covered by tuition.

When looking online, folks can go to Find.acacamps.org for an unbiased nationwide directory of camps that are accredited by their organization. The accreditation is earned by camp owners and directors who meet standards on policies, procedures and practices.

Rosenberg also recommends dialing in on the culture of each camp by asking about staff-to-camper ratio, how camps recruit staff and how often the camp gets return campers and staffers. “Knowing who is working with your child is very important,” he said.

Fit your child’s needs

Traditional versus specialty. Sleep-away versus day. The choices can be a bit overwhelming to the first-time camper and parent. “There are so many different types of kids and so many different types of camps it’s just important to find that camp that has the right fit for your son and daughter,” Rosenberg said.

Thomas said that day camps are a great option for parents who aren’t ready to send their children to a sleep-away camp yet. “They get an opportunity to see the kids and what they have learned and how well they enjoy camp each day,” he said.

Day camps are also great options for child care. Columbia Association day camps, for instance, run from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., with options for before and after care.

Sometimes the decision comes down to time and money. According to last year’s ACA business operation study, traditional sleep-away camps cost an average of $768 a week, with a range of just under $200 up to $1,500. The average cost of day camp was $318 a week, with a range from under $100 to more than $500.

No matter which one is chosen, both day and sleep-away camps offer an excellent opportunity for children to build independence and a sense of community, Rosenberg said.

Rice Moulsdale said the experience kids get at a traditional camp is priceless.

“I don’t think you can put a price tag on the amount of growth that your child will gain in a summer of summer camp,” she said. “You are talking independence. You are talking about trying new things. You are talking about how they are developing friendships they otherwise would not have been able to have with all sorts of ages. It’s just absolutely indispensable and priceless.”

Help kids prepare

Rice Moulsdale advised parents and children to spend some time on the camp website before the start of camp to watch videos and looking at pictures. “In reality, I don’t think there is so much you can do to prepare. It’s kind of like jump in!”

Thomas reminded parents to pack a bag with a lunch, swimsuit, towel and sunscreen. He noted that kids should go into the experience with an open mind. “Be ready to have fun,” he said. “Learn some new activities and when you come to the camps (you) are going to make memories that last a lifetime.”

If a child has never been away from their parents for an extended time, sleep-away camp can be daunting. “It’s (never) too early to talk about it,” Rosenberg said. “You know your own child.”

If possible, visit the camp while it is in session and talk with your children about the activities they will be taking part in.

Parents should also acknowledge that it is very natural and normal to be homesick the first few days of camp. “Camps work really hard to keep kids really busy those first few days,” Rosenberg said. “They are very focused on everyone having a blast and making friends.”

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