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How to Pick a Summer Camp

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There may still be snow on the ground where you live, but many mothers are turning their thoughts to their children’s summer plans. Camp brochures have already been mailed out, along with invitations to camp fairs and open houses. It may not feel like summer, but it’s time to start planning for it.

But how do you navigate the many choices out there and know what’s right for your child? Picking a place for your little ones to make lanyards and eat s’mores can be surprisingly overwhelming.

So we reached out to summer camp guru Josh Johnson for some expert advice. A California native, Josh grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and—with two working parents—attended summer camps himself since age nine. Over time Josh went from camper to counselor, and since college has worked as a director in various camp settings, giving him over 20 years of experience in the camp industry. Josh is currently the Extended Care and Camps Director at Aurora School, a small independent school in Oakland.

We caught up with Josh the day after he’d sent out his school’s summer camp mailing, and before running off to dole out snacks to a group of kids playing an energetic round of Banana Tag.

Mamapedia: Can you give us an overview of the different types of camps that are out there these days?

Josh: You can split all camps into two categories: general camps and specialty camps. I find this is the most helpful place to start narrowing down your search. Are you looking for someplace that exposes kids to a wide variety of activities and experiences? Or are you looking for a camp focusing on a specific activity or subject matter that you know your child enjoys, or that you’d like them to experience more deeply? Or maybe you want to try both types in the course of the summer and mix it up? Either way this is the first step when looking at camps.

Mamapedia: What should you keep in mind as you assess various camps?

Josh: If you’re looking for a specialty camp, make sure that you understand that the camp will focus on their specialty most if not all of the time, so if your child is not ready for five hours of soccer a day for five days, don’t sign them up for a week of soccer camp! There are probably as many types of specialty camps as there are kids activities out there, so narrow your search by the type of activity you are looking for (archery, chess, soccer, theater, 2nd grade math, beginner’s Sudoku, etc.).

If looking at a more general camp, make sure that they tailor the activities to be age appropriate (and limit the more “adventurous” activities to ages that are ready for them) and that your child is ready for the activities offered. Don’t be afraid to push the envelope, though. Camps are all about kids growing and pushing their limits.

Either type of camp (general or specialty) can have other affiliations or categorizations that separate them, such as religious camps, camps affiliated with a larger organization (YMCA, Boy/Girl Scouts, city rec departments, etc.). You can further narrow your search by looking for one of these types of camps.

Mamapedia: Where’s the best place to find out what camps are in your community?

Josh: Camp fairs. Many local organizations have camp fairs in the late winter and/or spring, were they invite camps to come set up a table and talk with parents and distribute brochures and flyers. This is a great way to quickly see all the different types of camps out there, and potentially talk with the camp director, all in one place. Think of it as a shopping mall for camps!

Another great resource is the American Camping Association, which accredits camps and has numerous regional offices to help camps and parents connect. But remember that just because a camp isn’t accredited by the ACA, it doesn’t mean the camp is underperforming or lacking. Many camps are affiliated with other organizations such as a national one (YMCA, Boy/ Girl Scouts) or with a school (public or private) or with a religious one (Jewish, Catholic, etc.) that has their own standards that may exceed the ACA’s in some instances.

Though I must say that the best resource out there is other parents. Ask around for what camps other parents found successful for their child. But remember that camps are like schools or jobs, they must be a good fit on both sides. If another parent says they went to a camp that their child did not enjoy, find out why. If it was something like poor organization or safety issues you should probably avoid that camp. But if the parent says something like “she didn’t like the activities but the counselors were sure friendly,” maybe your child would have a good time if they like the type of activities offered.

Mamapedia: What is the timeframe for planning for camps? Can you get early bird discounts at some camps?

Josh: There are a lot of camps that start enrolling for the next summer as soon as the current one ends, and offer significant discounts for enrolling early. Almost every camp has some type of discount for enrolling early. The definition of early, however, varies widely from camp to camp. The camp I currently run doesn’t open enrollment until March 1, but another camp I worked at opened enrollment before September of the year prior.

Mamapedia: Any tips for ways that people can save money with summer camps?

Josh: Many if not most camps offer some type of financial aid. Remember, it never hurts to ask. The worst they can say is no. Most of the time even if they don’t have any financial aid to offer they will give out info on a local non-profit or government group that they work with or that provides camperships—like scholarships—for the local area.

Mamapedia: What is the best approach for planning summer camp for shy kids? Better to bring a friend? Attend a camp at a familiar setting/school? Find a smaller camp?

Josh: Yes to all of those, and if possible, have your child go to an open house, tour, or other event at the camp site before the session begins so they will be more familiar with the setting and facilities, and will have met some of the staff (at least the Camp Director).

Mamapedia: What age do kids generally go to sleep-away camp?

Josh: Most sleep-away (a.k.a. resident) camps start around age eight or third grade, unless it is a more extreme outdoor adventure (i.e. backpacking in the wilderness), in which case the minimum age may be higher.

Mamapedia: For the first time at sleep away camp should it be close to home? Or just for a week or two?

Josh: I suggest having your child attend a one night overnight that many general day camps offer as part of a day camp session, or another type of group one- or two-day camp-out (i.e. a Girl Scout troop campout during the school year), before enrolling in an sleep-away camp. This will help you determine if your child is ready for a week or more of being away from home. If you can’t do that, going to an overnight camp for the first time with a friend is a good idea. Some day camps offer sleep-away camp sessions as well, typically toward the end of the summer, so kids can make lots of friends in the day camp setting and then go with the group to the sleep-away camp.

Mamapedia: Any tips for helping homesickness at sleep-away camps? Better to get visits from parents or for parents to stay away so kids can get into the groove?

Josh: Most sleep away camps have a parents’ visiting day, and strict policies on when parents can visit. If you as a parent are not ready to let go and not see your child for at least a week, you might want to try one more summer of day camps. (Often times a child will be ready for sleep-away camps before the parents are!)

Mamapedia: What kinds of things can you expect your kids will learn at camp?

Josh: While all camps offer instruction in at least one or two activities (specialized camps), or lots of different activities (general camp), the main goal for most camps is social and emotional development. Self-confidence, self-esteem, teamwork, and personal responsibility are all great bonus outcomes of your camper’s fun summer experience.

Kristen McClusky is the mother of two precocious young girls, and the wife of a charming geek. She blogs at motherload and works at Mamasource.

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