How to Choose a Day Camp

The calendar still says winter, but for many families, it’s time to start thinking about what their kids will do all summer. Whether you’re looking for a few weeks of fun and enrichment activities or an entire summer of childcare, day camps or sleep-away experiences, there are several factors to consider in selecting camps that will work for your child and your family.


1. Consider your child’s interests and input.

Camp experts say the number one consideration should be matching the camp experience to your child. Interests, temperament and age are all important factors. “There is such a wide range of different style camps, different activities, different philosophies even,” says Dave Brown, a camp director with Lafayette-based Mountain Camp, which runs three summer camps, a residential camp on Ice House Lake an hour from Lake Tahoe, day and overnight camps in Woodside and Plantation Farm Camp, a residential camp on a working farm in Sonoma County. “What type of experience are you looking for for your child, and what experience does your child want?”

Whether your child is looking to spend the summer learning computer coding and designing video games or immersed in the woods, completely cut off from the Internet, you can find a camp targeting those interests. There are camps specializing in sports, the arts, academics and more. Or perhaps he’d prefer an old-fashioned camp experience of campfire songs and skits, or maybe all of the above.

Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA), says you don’t necessarily need to look to specialty camps to get certain enrichment activities.

“There are a lot more traditional camp experiences that have incorporated enrichment and academic lessons but done so in a way that kids don’t feel like it’s school. Whether it’s science or writing or computers, many camps have incorporated that into their programs,” says Smith. In fact, 55 percent of camps accredited by the ACA say they include academic, science or tech activities.

You’ll always want to consider your child’s age, experience and expectations in choosing a camp. “What is your child chronologically and developmentally ready for?” says Smith. “If a child who is 11 has never been away from home for a night or a weekend, to send him off for the summer is very big leap.” “The first thing is to have a conversation with your child about what your expectations are, and what their expectations are,” she adds. “The most successful camp experience for a child is the one where he has participated in the decision-making.”


2. Do your research.

Once you and your child have narrowed down the type of camp or camps she’d like to attend, it’s time to start researching alternatives.

Many parents start online at sites such as Bay Area Parent’s Camp Guide directory or the American Camp Association’s site, which includes camps throughout the country.

Some camps hold open houses for sites that are accessible during the winter and spring, while others may host house parties or other information events off-site. In-person camp fairs are a great way to talk with staff from a number of camps in one place. Bay Area Parent will host our annual Camp Fair Sat., March 10, 2018 from 10am- 3pm at Westgate Shopping Center in San Jose.

Recommendations from family and friends whose children have attended the camp can also be invaluable.

“You can learn a lot about a program from a website and the material they provide, but at the end of the day, the experience a child or family has with a camp is often difficult to put into words or marketing materials,” says Brown. “Getting a firsthand reference is a great way to find out what the experience is like.”

For families considering sending a child to an overnight camp for the first time, Brown and Smith say it’s a great idea to see if the camp offers a family camp program you could attend together first. “It’s a great way to ease kids into what camp is about and get them excited to come on their own and take that step of independence because they’ve tried it with their family,” Brown says.


3. Weigh logistics.

What looks like the perfect camp for your child may not be a good fit if you need to get him there every day during rush-hour traffic, in the opposite direction of your office.

Location is just one important logistical consideration. A day camp’s hours and whether it provides before- and after-care can be deal-breakers. Most day camps operate on a week-by-week schedule, but some offer additional flexibility.

Whether your child has friends who are also planning to attend a camp is often a key factor, both for a child’s comfort and enjoyment, but also for the all-important carpool. But it can be risky to plan your summer around another family’s plans, because we all know plans change.

Because of that, try to find out how early you need to sign up for a camp. Some camps are full at the end of the summer for the next year because of returning campers. Others may have space some weeks into the summer.

If you do register early, find out in advance what the camp’s change, cancellation and refund policies are. Brown recommends checking out camp insurance for camps that don’t offer refunds.


4. Check out quality.

The quality of camps ranges as much as their offerings. Smith recommends that parents inquire whether a camp is accredited by ACA, which offers the nation’s only accrediting system for camps, including compliance reviews of more than 300 standards from facility safety to staff-camper rations, plus site visits every three years.

While ACA has 2,600 member camps nationwide, that’s a small fraction – only about 20-25 percent – of camps that are accredited, and the cost may be prohibitive for smaller camps. If a camp is not accredited, ask why not and what else they do to ensure safety and quality. Are they licensed and is there an oversight body? What are the staff’s qualifications, how are they trained and screened, and what are counselor-camper ratios? ACA guidelines vary by children’s age and type of camp, but range from one staff member to five campers up to age 5 for overnight camp to one staff member to 12 campers ages 15-18 for day camp.


5. Examine costs.

Camp costs can range from as little as $50 per week for a part-day, volunteer-run camp to thousands for overnight camps. But high cost does not necessarily equal high enjoyment for all kids. Local parks and recreation departments and organizations such as Girl Scouts, the YMCA and local churches and private schools often offer great lower cost camps.

But don’t rule out a camp just because you think the price is too high. Inquire about need-based scholarships, either from the camp itself or an affiliated community organization. Also seek out discounts. Many camps offer specials for early registration or discounts for siblings, multiple-week enrollment or referrals. Half-day options may also be available at a lower cost, and some camps offer payment plans.

In addition, make sure to know in advance what enrollment costs cover. Is there an additional materials fee? Does the camp provide lunch and/or snacks? What are the costs for extended-day care?

Remember, too, that a portion of day camp costs – but not those for overnight camps – may be tax-deductible childcare expenses for working families with children under 13.“Don’t assume you can’t afford camp,” says Smith. “There is a camp for every family and a camp for every budget. It’s a matter of doing your homework.”

And a great summer camp experience can be invaluable, says Brown. “If you find a high-quality summer camp that’s a good fit for your kids,” he says, “it really can be a powerful growth experience for them.”


Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.


 What To Do If Your Child Doesn’t Like Camp


Sometimes, even when you’ve done your homework and think you’ve found the perfect fit, your child may report from his first day or week of camp that he just doesn’t like it – and doesn’t want to stay or go back. Camp experts suggest you don’t immediately throw in the towel, but instead use the following suggestions to understand the problem and find a solution.


1. Talk to your child. “Really listen to your child and ask good questions about why they’re unhappy,” says Dave Brown, a director at Mountain Camp. “Is it a single activity or a counselor or another kid? Then it needs to be addressed. One of the biggest disappointments for us is when a child goes home and the parents call and say ‘my child did not have a good time because …’ and we realize that child never spoke up.”


2. Talk to camp staff – or encourage your child to do so. “Once the parent knows something is wrong, contacting the camp and letting them know is really important. They should feel empowered to do that. A really great camp is going to take that feedback,” Brown says.

Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, says it’s appropriate to go directly to the camp director, who can make the call on whether to involve the child’s counselor in a solution.

Brown says parents should frame concerns in a constructive manner to be most effective. But, depending on the severity of the problem and your child’s age, he also advises considering letting your child speak up for himself.

“If the parent can encourage the child to advocate for himself, that can be powerful. Use it as a lesson, instead of saying, ‘You’ve got a problem. I’ll fix it for you,’” he says. “In communities where parents are overly involved in their kids’ lives – whether solving their problems or advocating for their kids when they could themselves – kids aren’t learning and growing where they should be. When they have a challenge or an obstacle and their parents aren’t there, they have to figure it out.”


3. If necessary, seek an alternative. But make sure you know camp policies in advance so you don’t get stuck. Many camps have no-refund policies, so read their fine print in advance. But some may be willing to change a child’s day camp group, or bunkmates in a residential setting, or change camp locations or weeks if spaces are available, though change fees may apply.


4. If possible, stick it out. Brown says the kids who are hardest to help with homesickness or other problems at residential camp are the ones whose parents have “made deals” that they will pick the child up if they’re unhappy. “It’s the hardest to help them because they have an incentive to continue to be unhappy,” he says. Some kids may just need to warm up to a new camp, so parents should be careful not to overreact to early complaints.

“Sometimes, something new can make any of us uncomfortable,” Smith says. “They may come home and have just had a bad day, maybe not liked an activity. If they go back again, they may be just fine.”


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