Do you know what camp you’re sending your kid to? Experts say it’s never too early to start looking. But before you do there are a few key issues to address to ensure you have a happy camper on your hands. After all, every camp is different, and it’s important to make sure the one your child attends is a good fit. Whether it’s day or sleepaway camp you’re considering, here are some tips for choosing a summer camp that’s right for your family:
• First, decide if the whole family is ready for the separation, which can be as short as one week or as long as eight weeks. “Our suggestion is you always send the child to camp when the child—and the parent—are ready,” said Joanne Paltrowitz, director of the camp referral service Camp Experts. “You never push a child.” If everyone’s not on board, families can always wait another year.
• Another thing to consider is whether your child might be too young or too old for camp. Paltrowitz suggested the best time to look for summer camps is the year before children enter 4th, 5th and 6th grades. In the older years, friendships have already been formed and “socially, it’s harder” to break in, she said, adding “It’s really important to get your child in on the ground floor.”
• Decide whether you’re looking for day or overnight camps. “It can look very, very overwhelming—there are thousands of camps out there,” said Renee Flax, director of program services for the American Camp Association. Visit www.acacamps.org or www.campwizard.org for extensive lists of accredited camps.
• Choosing a camp is a little bit like matchmaking, so zero in on camps that match your child’s interests. “The parents’ homework assignment is to think objectively about who their child really is,” Flax said. Is your child artsy or athletic? Will they swim in a lake or must there be a swimming pool? Circus camp or riding camp? “It’s not one size fits all,” she said.
• Take location into account. “Some parents are not comfortable with a six-hour distance from their home,” Paltrowitz said. Fortunately, plenty of overnight camps exist within a few hours’ drive of New York City.
• The gamut of prices is wide, so figure out how much your family expects to pay, Flax said. Prices range from free YMCA camps to private camps that cost $9,000 per summer.
• Meet with camp directors—and trust your first impression. If they don’t impress you as being knowledgeable, positive and responsible, heed the warning. “That’s important to the nth degree,” said Sam Borek, owner and director of the Woodmont Day Camp in New City, N.Y.
• Find out how camps recruit their staff. Jem Sollinger, director of Camp Laurel in Readfield, Maine, performs background checks and asks for two letters of recommendation—and that’s before the initial interview with camp counselors.
• Ask camp directors what their return rate is. “If a return rate is very low, that might signal a problem to you,” Flax said. A return rate of over 80 percent probably means happy parents—and happy campers.
• Unleash detailed questions on camp directors. How do they deal with home-sickness? How do children and their parents keep in touch? Can the camp accommodate special diets? How do they dispense medication?
• Ask for a parent referral, suggested Flax. If you’re the parent of a 10-year-old girl in Manhattan, ask to speak to the parent of another 10-year-old girl in Manhattan. Camp directors should be more than happy to oblige.
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