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Choosing the Right Summer Camp

How to Select the Best Fit for Your Kids



Does your child like sports, science, the arts — or everything? Can he sleep comfortably at a friend’s or relative’s house? Does she need academic enrichment? What kind of experience would you like your child to have this summer?

There are more than 12,000 day and overnight camps in the United States, offering a wide variety of programs and weekly fees that range from less than $100 to upward of $1,500, all but guaranteeing a camp for every child and every budget.

Such variety makes choosing a camp “an extremely hard process because there are so many wonderful programs out there,” says Rachel Chadwin, assistant camp director of Appel Farm Arts and Music Center, an overnight camp for ages 7 to 17 in Elmer, NJ. How can you make the decision easier?

Embrace the differences

“Much like what happened in education when we found that kids have different learning styles, in the camp industry we realized that the camp experience can be designed for different types of camp seekers,” says Steve Haines, who, as owner of Camp Concepts in Newtown, PA, operates George School Day Camp (for ages 6 to 14; pictured above), Little Buds Day Camp (for preschoolers), Expressions Day Camp (for kids who have social skills deficits) and the Horizons USA language-immersion program (for international campers). “Not every day camp is the right fit for every child. Some parents seek a stronger sense of ‘community’ versus a big mega-camp experience.”

Howard Batterman, owner/director of Blue Bell, PA’s Sesame Rockwood Camps and Rockwood Adventures Teen Travel, advises choosing a camp based on a child’s age and developing interests. “Children 3 through 7 should attend a camp with lots of varied activities, so parents can monitor their personal likes and dislikes for the various offerings in aquatics, athletics, the arts and the outdoors.” He recommends signing up for a duration of “at least four weeks, in order to give a child sufficient time to develop meaningful friendships, independence and self-esteem.”

“Parents should seek out camps that more closely match their child’s special interests,” believes Chadwin. “Focusing on the activity track or a particular environment where your children have the potential to experience success and feel great about themselves makes the process much smoother.” 

All-in activities

Although traditional camp activities — swimming and boating, arts and crafts, archery and challenge courses — haven’t changed much since the first American camp was founded in 1861, “traditional” camps today have rapidly expanded their offerings to accommodate the diverse interests and needs of 21st-century families. A 2013 American Camp Association (ACA) survey of camps nationwide found that in the past two years, 35 percent have added family camp options, 31 percent provide environmental education and 28 percent have camper gardening programs that often provide food for the dining room. Some have also tried to keep pace with specialty camps by adding new programs in technology and digital media; cooking; yoga, wellness and fitness; college planning; and community service.

Camp Concepts keeps its schedule fresh and fun with activities that allow for 100 percent participation (as opposed to games that require certain skills) and rely on the leadership of enthusiastic counselors. “Even the dullest of activities can become awesome when you have the right facilitator running it,” says Haines.

Like many specialty camps, Appel Farm (pictured at right) offers an elective-based program in which campers choose “majors” and “minors,” but it also blends traditional activities into the day. “As an arts-focused camp, kids don't come here for sports, swimming or tennis, but we do offer those things,” along with hour-long workshops in art, science and technology, says Chadwin. “Sports break up the day and include an element of exercise, and workshops are a great way to try something for the first time and find out that you love it.”

Because camps differ in their philosophies and programs, it’s important to ask camp directors how your child’s day will be structured. Batterman says that at his camps, the schedule for kids 3 through 7 is set and programmed with younger sensibilities in mind. However, “The older the child is, the more activity selection and choices the camper will have. Making choices is valuable to a child’s growth,” he explains. 

Learning, lunch & more

Camps have also been proactive in responding to parents’ and educators’ concerns about summer learning loss. Forty percent of camps surveyed by the ACA in 2011 reported relating school curricula to the daily schedule in some way; that same year, the ACA launched its “Explore 30” Camp Reading Program to encourage 30 minutes of daily reading at camp.

As you consider your camp options, remember to ask about session length, transportation, lunch for day campers, introductory sessions or shorter days for young and first-time campers, and financial aid. “Flexibility is the hallmark of any quality program,” says Batterman. With the right questions and a little homework, you can make your child a happy camper this summer. 

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone regional office serving Pennsylvania and Delaware. Learn more at Acacamps.org/keystone and Campparents.org

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