Summer may seem far away, but if you're thinking of sending your child to camp, now is the time to plan for it. The popularity of camp is soaring, with attendance topping 10 million this year, according to Marla Coleman, president of the American Camping Association (ACA) in Martinsville, IN. The good news is that there are around 12,000 programs in the U.S., giving you plenty of options, from specialty camps focusing on such activities as computers, acting, or hockey, to traditional cabin camping in the woods.
Before you dive into the selection process, determine whether your child is ready for camp -- and truly interested. Most kids start sleepaway (resident) camp at age 7 or 8, while day camp caters to kids as young as 3. If you're contemplating sleepaway camp, consider whether your youngster has spent the night away from home with friends or relatives. If so, was he comfortable with it? "If a child isn't able to separate from parents in other settings, that would be a red flag," explains Coleman. A child should also possess a baseline of skills to cope without Mom or Dad, such as the ability to cut his meat at mealtime. "Not that kids won't get help," Coleman says, "but they'll need to have the foundations there."
If your child seems cool to the idea of camp, don't push, says Coleman. But do make sure he has a clear understanding of what it's like and hasn't been influenced by misinformation from friends.
Once you're confident that your child is ready and eager for camp, you'll have an array of programs to choose from:
Sleepaway or day camps
Sleepaway camp ranges from one to eight weeks and offers a variety of supervised activities. Day camp is appropriate for kids who aren't interested in or prepared for sleepaway camp. It generally features activities similar to sleepaway camp, as well as transportation to and from the site.
Specialty or traditional camps
Specialty camps focus on a particular theme or activity, such as sports or the arts. Traditional camps provide a more general experience, typically including a mixture of arts and crafts, sports, and outdoor events.
These cater to kids with mental, medical, or physical disabilities.
Coleman suggests that you concentrate your search on accredited camps. To qualify, a camp must meet more than 300 standards related to health, safety, and program quality. The ACA Web site includes a list of all accredited camps, searchable by region, cost, and a variety of other criteria. Camp fairs held through the country are another way to get an overview of options and speak directly with representatives from individual camps.
Next, narrow your choices based on your child's needs, interests, and personality. What is the camp's philosophy? Some are competitive, while others are more cooperative. Does your child thrive on a tight schedule? Look for a structured environment, rather than a looser setting. Is he looking for exposure to many new skills and activities, or would he prefer to hone his athletic ability?
When you've got a handful of finalists, it's time to talk to the camp director. Some questions to ask include:
Finally, take a day to visit the camp with your child, if possible. And trust your instincts, says Coleman. "The bottom line," she emphasizes, "is whether you feel comfortable entrusting your child to this camp."