Off They Go!

There may still be rain splattering on your patio, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not time to gear up for that age-old tradition: sending kids to summer camp.

These days, the phrase “summer camp” encompasses a lot more than a cheery week in the mountains. Schools and organizations throughout the Bay Area offer a wide range of activities that appeal to almost every type of kid – and parent. Lengths of time vary, as do locations and prices. Some are for older kids, others cater to little ones as young as 3. But one thing is the same: Parents want to know what their child – and by extension, they themselves – are in for.


Here are 10 questions geared toward helping you understand summer camps and make decisions for your child. Happy trails!


1. What is the difference between summer enrichment programs and camps?

The short answer is, nothing.

Most camps – whether they are residential or daily, in the mountains or in the city, offer enrichment for kids. However, in the past decade or two, the opportunities for summer camps have expanded, both in the amount and type of programs offered.

While the old idea of a summer camp – somewhere in the wild, with sunburned noses and dirty knees – is still around, there are many other types of “camps” that seem more like after-school enrichment programs – in the summer. Take, for instance, those science camps at Chabot Space and Science Center, or the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, or language immersion camps, or even computer camps, like the popular iD Tech Camp. 


2. Is there truly a camp for everyone?

Yes, in so far as that there are hundreds of special-interest camps, both residential and daycamps. If your child is musical, there are music camps. If your child is an athlete, there are sports camps. If your child is interested in animals, there are many camps at zoos and nature preserves.

There are also camps for children with special-needs, including camps for kids with AIDS, diabetes, cancer, developmental disabilities, weight issues and even those kids struggling with grief and depression.


3. Should my child attend a day camp or sleepaway camp?

Whether you child attends a sleep away camp or a day camp depends solely on your child – and your family situation.

Many families have elementary and older kids do some time at day camps and some time away over night. Some questions to ask your child are, Have you stayed away from your parents for at least one night? Are you willing to try foods that might be different than what you eat at home?

Also, many overnight camps know that homesickness is normal, and the counselors are trained to help kids through a difficult time.

 Many overnight camps offer programs for children as young as 7. A few even offer parent-child options for younger children.

Young kids often start with shorter stints. The YMCA of the East Bay offers Rookie Camp for those entering second and third grade, which is three nights long instead of the typical week. Sessions for older kids generally last a week, sometimes two. You may also want to try a family camp situation, such as the ones offered through Camp Concord or UC Berkeley’s Lair of the Bear.

The all-summer-long camp that was and is a mainstay for East Coast families is less common in California.

The best way to start figuring out about camps is to ask other parents what their kids have enjoyed.


4. Can I afford camp?

Yes, if you plan right. If you find a camp that you and your child really like, and the price is prohibitive, ask if they offer scholarships or other financial aid.

You can also check out your town’s – or a neighboring community’s – recreation department. These summer camps are the most reasonable.


5. Why is a summer program good for my child?

The reasons are many. According to the American Camp Association, camp provides children the opportunity to grow and gain confidence, as well as to learn important life skills. It allows them to make friends who may not necessarily be people they’d meet otherwise. Often, camps teach new skills.

And don’t tell your kids this, but camps are educational. They are an opportunity to learn in an experiential classroom – a powerful learning environment that is a critical part of educating the whole child. In fact, camp is comprised almost entirely of “teachable moments” – moments when children are actively engaged and using creativity and cognitive skills. Because of the “hands-on” nature of camp, often those children who may struggle in traditional educational settings excel.

At camp, children gain an appreciation of the environment and a better understanding of the world around them. They grow by learning to take healthy risks, developing authentic relationships with peers and mentors, and learning that “I can” is much more powerful than “I can’t.”

Plus, camp is fun.


6. Do I really need to start looking for camps now?

Generally, most summer camps open registration in February or March, so while we may still be wrapped up in our winter coats, it’s not too early to think summer. In fact, some camps begin registration right at the start of the New Year and a handful even offer early registration (along with a discount) if you register as early as December.

Some of what is driving this process earlier and earlier is a handful of sought-after private camps starting their registration in January and offering early-bird discounts to those who sign up before March 1. The tight economy is also a factor, as many parents want to plan their summer activities early – in order to know how much to budget.

However, that same economy is also helping camp registration stay open longer into the spring and even early summer, as organizations want to give as wide a window as possible to prospective campers.


7. What are some of the more interesting summer programs available?

These days, throw a rock, you’ll hit an interesting camp. Do you have a child who is into the American Girl books? The Fremont Recreation department has a camp for her. Your son is a future Pete Sampras? San Francisco’s recreation department just added a slew of tennis camps in Golden Gate Park. Your grade-schooler is a Lego lover? There are Lego camps offered all over the place, through private outfits and city recreation departments.

There are sports camps for almost every activity, as well as age-appropriate theater camps. And if your child is obsessed with the Winter Olympics, the Camp of Champions (COC) snowboard, ski and mountain bike camp at Whistler Blackcomb in Canada offers an “extreme” residential camp.

And as we mentioned above, there are many camps available for children with special needs.


8. Can I augment my child’s education through camp?

Camp as an extension of a traditional education is not a new or novel concept. Early pioneers in camp consisted largely of educators who recognized a need to continue learning throughout the summer in an environment that also allowed children to be children. In fact, in a 1928 Redbook magazine editorial, camp advocate Frederick Guggenheimer stated, “The school and the camp are complementary to each other — the one begins where the other leaves off.”

That is true. The organization Tips on Trips and Camps, a camp advisory service, has a few suggestions. Is your child interested in geography or world cultures? Try a language immersion camp. Is your child interested in turtles? Consider a sailing expedition or a marine biology program or working with dolphins or sea turtles.

Even if your child thinks they have outgrown camping, but they love the outdoors, try an outdoor adventure including rock-climbing, whitewater rafting and hiking.

Through a camp experience, generations of America’s children have been receiving a life education — developing the skills needed to become successful adults. Although the desks may be absent, nature becomes the classroom. Camp remains one of the most powerful learning environments and is a critical part of educating the whole child. 


9. My child is 13, which feels too old for many camps and too young to spend the entire summer unsupervised. What kind of other options are there?

As kids get older, camp changes. For tweens and teens, the focus is more on a specific area or interest. Music lovers may enjoy a rock camp and there are also camps for clothing design, jewelry making and computer coding, to name a few.

Older kids can also take a turn running the show. Many are eligible to be counselors or counselors-in-training.


10. How do I pick a good camp for my child?

There are a couple of hard and fast rules about selecting camps for your child. First off, know your kid. Don’t put them in a music program when they would rather be playing soccer. Find a camp that appeals to them so they will be engaged.

Ask your friends and other parents for suggestions. In fact, it’s always a good idea to plan that your child attend camp with a buddy, as that will make the experience more positive.


Finally, do your own homework.

Luckily, while this may sound daunting, it’s easier than ever. In recent years, the idea of Camp Fairs and Summer Expos have become more popular, at which representative from camps and summer programs gather together like at a trade show to talk about their camp, hand out literature and answer any questions parents might have. Parents can take their time researching all the opportunities out there, as well as inquire about costs and safety issues. 

To make things even easier, visit Bay Area Parent's online Camp Guide- a Virtual Camp Fair where you can attend in your PJ's - which allows parents to browse hundreds of programs options at their own pace.


Peggy Spear is editor of Bay Area Parent. Christine Foster and Melanie Norall contributed to this article.


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