Countdown to Camp

Seems like the countdown to Christmas just came to an end. Now it’s time to get ready for another major undertaking: summer camp. There are so many enticing options for keeping the kids busy and enriched during the summer that it can leave mom and dad feeling a little overwhelmed. Double that for working parents who need to arrange an entire summer of camps.


To ease the process, we’ve put together this calendar advising parents what to do and when. The calendar pulls from my own 10 years-plus of camp planning experience, as well as from that of six Bay Area camp experts. These include officials with two technology camps, three city recreation programs and a Cub Scout/Boy Scout council. Together, we’ve put together a calendar that takes you from winter, when you begin exploring possibilities, through spring, as you start to puzzle the pieces together, and right through the last day of camp.


Preliminaries – After the New Year


Kick off your summer planning by setting dates for vacations and special events. By January, my siblings and I always set the date for the annual family reunion in San Diego – something none of us would want to miss due to a poorly scheduled (and non-refundable) summer camp. By now, my husband and I also have a good idea when and where we’re going on vacation. (It may be Disneyland, but I’m still hoping for a 21-day Mediterranean cruise.)


Speaking of cruises, you’ll want to consider your summer budget. Do you need to stick to lower-cost camps run by cities and churches? Or, can you spring for a few expensive specialty camps in areas like science, music and art?


Now it’s time to start your research. Most specialty camps have distributed their brochures and put their offerings on their websites by this point. When reviewing material, parents should, of course, read the camp descriptions, dates and safety procedures.


Vince Matthews, marketing director for Digital Media Academy, which holds technology camps for kids ages 6-18 at Stanford and campuses nationwide, says parents should also check the camp’s daily itineraries. DMA shows “the actual course outline hour by hour,” he says.


And, they should check out online reviews (try, references and instructors bios, say Matthews and other camp experts. If you’re looking for a first-rate experience in a special field, Matthews advises that you “look for camps with instructors who are professionals in their field, not college students.”


If you can’t find the answers, get on the phone and call the camp staff.


“If anyone ever has questions, they can always contact the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department,” says the city’s recreation superintendent Robert Acosta.  E-mail or call, and someone will respond.


Lastly, and probably most importantly: Chat with your kids about their – and your – wishes, says Neil Rufino, recreation superintendent for the city of San Jose.


“Do they want to learn something new? Meet new friends? Relax and have fun?” asks Rufino, who runs one of the Bay Area’s largest programs with 131 different camps.


He says parents should ask themselves, “What experiences do they want their child to receive? Never underestimate the power of having fun.”




Register for your top-choice camps and popular specialty camps during this month.  Most specialty camps start registration by Feb. 1, and nearly all camps begin by late March.


Film-making, animation and video game design camps are popular for all ages and fill up fast, say Matthews and Joy Wong Daniels, associate marketing director of San Francisco’s multimedia children’s museum, Zeum. 


New courses also tend to be popular, Matthews adds. DMA is premiering Adventures in Science and Engineering and Adventures in Art and Graphic Design for younger kids, and a two-week Academy for Digital Film and Music Production for teens.


Parks and recreation camps and other less costly camps can be top sellers, too. How do you find out about them? By word of mouth, or just as often, by signing up too late the year before.


Last year, I missed signing up my daughter for a three-day, $30 (yes, $30) video production and tech camp offered by the Girl Scouts of Northern California. This year, I’ll be ready in February.


In San Jose, dance camps for younger kids and video gaming for teens tend to be impacted, Rufino says.


Besides the busiest classes, Rufino advises parents to sign up now for the busiest sessions. That means anything other than the first and last week of summer and the week of July 4.


Rufino also suggests that families consider registering for after-school classes offered this spring by the camp they’re interested in. That way, they can check out a new camp on a small scale before they commit their child to a 40-hour summer stint.




March is the time to visit a camp fair, where parents can ask questions directly of staff and kids can check out the colorful visual displays and see if the camp feels right to them.


Bay Area Parent holds camp fairs on Saturday, March 12 in San Jose and Sunday, March 20 in Daly City. Other fairs include the Expo in San Mateo, the Strawberry Recreation District Camp Night in Mill Valley and the American Association of University Women-sponsored fair in Oakland. 


Meanwhile, begin signing up for recreation department camps. By March, most recreation departments hand out their summer recreation brochures at your nearest community center. Or, find them online.


By signing up before April, you may be able to get an early bird discount. DMA offers $75 off per course until Feb. 18 and $50 off from Feb. 19 to March 31. Boy Scout and Cub Scout camps usually offer an early discount of approximately 25 percent until May, says Charles Howard-Gibbon, scout executive at the Boy Scouts’ Alameda Council. Many camps also offer scholarships for eligible kids.




Continue the registration process. “March and April are getting a little late,” to sign kids up for the most popular programs, says Matthews, but many camps still have space.


For families with multiple kids attending many day camps, consider creating a calendar or spreadsheet to keep the camps straight. These tools may reveal potential problems, like registering your kids for different camps on the same week but an hour away from each other.


To ease the camp day commute, Rufino suggests looking for camps close to your work. Be sure to think of other practical issues, too, such as: Do I know someone I can carpool with? Who will pick up my child if I’m late? Does my child need to have a check-up first? And, does the camp require that I volunteer?


Howard-Gibbon says that by using volunteers, Cub Scout and Boy Scout camps can keep their prices down. And as long as there are enough, volunteers also mean they can accommodate extra boys at the last minute. But, sometimes parents forget to schedule their volunteer hours. I once had to do some last-minute jiggering during a busy work week to meet the volunteer requirement at my son’s Cub Scout day camp. In the end, the day spent hammering leather and screaming scout tunes with 7-year-olds was worth the effort.




If you haven’t signed up yet, try anyway. Some camps continue to register campers until the day the camp begins. However, parents “just need to remember that there is always the possibility of camps being filled by this time,” says Acosta of Santa Cruz. And sometimes they may need to flexible.


“For example, (in Santa Rosa, the popular) Camp Wa-Tam is full by May, but we almost always have spots at Yu-Chi and Doyle,” says the city’s recreation coordinator Ryan Shepherd. “They’re different sites with similar programming.”


June to August


Time for camp! Take care of the practical matters: pack the lunches, write names on clothing, apply the sunscreen. And, let your child know what to expect.


Most camps send orientation letters outlining the days’ events. Otherwise, go back and review the materials you picked up.


“Read the brochure together,” Howard-Gibbons says. “Parents need to spend time describing what it will be like.”


Don’t forget to prepare for the last day of camp. Many camps not only offer first-day orientations, but also last-day presentations, something busy moms and dads may forget to include in their schedule.


On the final day, as the kids show off their leatherwork, their God’s-eye weavings, their animated movies and their robots, give yourself a pat on the back. Thanks to your excellent planning, your child has enjoyed a summer camp adventure.


Angela Geiser is an associate editor with Bay Area Parent.

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