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Camp guide 2012

How to choose a summer camp

With thousands of camps in New England alone, finding the one that’s right for your child can seem daunting. Here’s some practical advice.

(Illustration by Ryan Snook)
By Jon Marcus
Globe Correspondent / February 26, 2012
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Having trouble picking out a camp for your kid this summer? Can’t make up your mind from among the thousands of camps, the dozens of types, the glossy catalogs, the high-production videos? Racing to narrow down these myriad choices sometime before the bell rings on the final day of school in June?

Try sending seven kids to summer camp.

That was Ann Soper’s plight. “I thought, ‘Where do I start?’ ” says Soper, of Wayland, who has three sons and four daughters. “It was bewildering. There are camps for every possible interest, which I guess I didn’t realize when I was starting out. I was thinking of the traditional camp where you make s’mores and sleep in a cabin on a lake.” There are still camps like that, of course, but the number and variety of camps, and the smorgasbord of options they provide to stay competitive, continue to increase.

Dizzying multitudes of camps in a lengthening list of categories vie for attention on the Internet  – 14,000 day and 7,000 overnight camps nationwide, with some 2,000 in New England. There are sports camps, arts camps, theater camps, teen camps, computer camps, travel camps, religious camps, special needs camps. Busy schedules mean wedging summer camp among family vacations and school obligations. Heightened fears about child safety raise the stakes still higher. The vast range of prices – up to about $11,000 for seven weeks at a swanky private New England overnight camp, not including uniforms, laundry, transportation, special programs such as horseback riding or water skiing, and spending money – adds to the confusion.

“There are so many more choices for parents,” says Judy Levine, who helps families select summer camps through her Framingham-based referral service Summer Camp and Trip Resources. “Do they want single-sex? Coed? What geographic location? Structured or free choice? What length of time?”

Yet there are only so many summers in a childhood. And even though cash-strapped parents are putting off enrolling in a summer camp until later than they used to, top camps and their most popular sessions are already filling up.

Soper finally placed all of her kids in camps they liked. “It took a lot of research and hard work,” she says. Her oldest have since gone off to college – a decision-making process she found surprisingly similar. “College is more expensive, of course, so that hangs in the balance,” she says. “But in a lot of ways, it’s the same question: What’s a good fit?”

***

The answer, when it comes to summer camps, isn’t always what you think.

Children who like theater, for example, but who go to schools where theater’s not considered cool may want a camp that has a theater program, says Chris Thurber, a psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, and coauthor of The Summer Camp Handbook. “Often kids pick things at camp that are different from, but complementary, to what they do during the school year,” he says. “Kids will say to me, ‘I love that at camp I get to be myself.’ They’re starting with a clean slate.”

In fact, that’s the thing about camps that children like the most, according to a Lilly Endowment-supported study by the American Camp Association. It’s also why most experts warn against parents’ first reflex when they’re looking for a summer camp: asking their children’s friends.

“Don’t send your child to camp with a friend,” Levine says. “That defeats the purpose. Let him learn to be independent without having a friend tag along.” Attending camp together can strain a friendship, she says, and just because one child likes a particular camp doesn’t always mean a friend will.

Camp, says Thurber, gives kids a chance to make new friends. “They get to shed their school reputations. That can still happen if there’s one or two kids from school there, but if it gets to be that all the kids from the same town go to that camp, then whatever cliques existed at school will come with them.”

Parents who can’t wait to send their children to the same camp they attended should also consider that impulse carefully. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Would my son or daughter enjoy this?’ ” Thurber says. “Some adults romanticize their camp experience. I would encourage parents to think of their children as unique people with a set of preferences that may be different from theirs.”

Jo-Anne Nyer of Acton loved the camp she went to as a child. “I was the kid who cried for the last three days because she didn’t want to leave.” But when her daughter followed in her footsteps, things didn’t work out quite as well. “I hope I didn’t push her into it,” Nyer says. “But what may be more to my credit is that, when she didn’t like it, we didn’t push her to stay. We said, ‘Let’s go find something else.’ ”

Finding something else, of course, without depending on their own experiences or those of their children’s friends, means parents have to start from scratch, too. Technology isn’t always helpful. “Every camp seems great when you go on the website,” says Soper, who started her search online. Nyer ran into the same dilemma. “It was so overwhelming, and there were so many choices, it made me crazy,” she says.

Videos, provided by the camps, of smiling kids on sunny days may not tell the real story either. “Don’t get sold by glossy brochures or fancy videos. That is not indicative of how good the camp is,” urges Steve Lepler, who runs the highly regarded nonprofit West End House Camp in Parsonfield, Maine. “Camps that charge $10,000 for seven weeks can make a video that looks like Gone With the Wind.”

Price, too, doesn’t necessarily relate to quality of camps. “Camp is an experience where what you get has very little correspondence with what you pay for,” says Thurber, who, in his consulting role, has visited 200 camps. “Some of the best camps with the best leadership are agency camps like YMCA camps, and some of the worst camps are privately run for-profit camps. There’s no correlation one way or another.”

But there are new, low-tech ways to cut through all the clutter.

***

When Grace Peng sent her son to overnight camp for the first time, “I think I was more nervous than he was,” she says. “It’s the first time your kid is away.” But Peng, of Lincoln, took advantage of an offer of a two-week trial period. If her son didn’t like the camp, he could come home. If he liked it, he’d “extend,” as camp directors call it – and stay for two weeks more. Peng checked in near the end of the trial period to see whether she should come and pick him up. “And he said: ‘I can’t believe it’s been two weeks already. I want to stay.’ ”

In-person tours, overnight stays, and test drives like that one are new ways camps are marketing themselves to a generation of anxious parents. Parents who plan far enough ahead can often let their child stay overnight at a residential camp, for instance, or for a day at day camp, the year before they plan to send him or her for the summer. But by far the most popular new way to pick a camp is by taking a college admissions-style personal tour, also a year ahead of time.

Most camps allow in-season visits. But experienced veterans say parents should do more than take a ride around the campus in a golf cart. First, they say, show up on a weekday. So many parents visit on the weekends that the tours are short and rushed. Second, narrow down your finalists to three contenders at the most. “The kid is going to love the first camp he sees, because there’s no point of reference,” says Levine, who, with her team, drops in on 50 camps a summer.

Don’t get distracted by elaborate facilities. “It’s not about that,” Thurber says. “Of course, you want the equipment to be safe and in working order. But you don’t necessarily need the waterslide. The things kids value are the friendships and relationships and the ability to be themselves. Camps put sexy equipment on their Web page, but that’s not the reason kids will elect to come back to that camp summer after summer.” Soper thinks so, too. “I don’t think it’s the facilities kids care about,” she says. “They don’t notice that as much as the parents do. They like the staff and meeting the other kids and the feeling of camp spirit or whatever you want to call it – like everybody is a part of the camp.”

Levine likes to visit summer camps on rainy days. “It’s important for us to know the kids are still busy even though it’s raining,” she says. “Are the counselors actually engaged with the campers? One of the things that troubles us is if there are kids sitting on the sidelines, not participating. Why isn’t the staff getting these kids involved?” She also watches for “the wanderers,” Levine says – campers drifting around aimlessly and unsupervised.

Peg Smith visits camps all summer, too, to stay up-to-date in her role as CEO of the American Camp Association, or ACA, based in Martinsville, Indiana. “I am looking for the level of baseball chatter and the mood and tone of the camp,” she says. “I want to see counselors directly interacting with the campers and not off in a corner. I look for counselor direct involvement. I listen for the tone in the voices. I look at how comfortable the director is in answering my questions. ‘I’ll get back to you’? No. I want to know now.”

Seeing a camp ahead of time does something else, too. It gets a kid excited. “Those visits really helped to mitigate the nervousness that every child feels,” Soper says. “It helped them get over the initial anxiety, to see a camp and feel good about it.”

***

One of the things visiting parents increasingly ask is what camps do to safeguard against sexual abuse, especially since Senator Scott Brown revealed last year that he had been molested as a child by a counselor at a camp on Cape Cod. Camps are startlingly unregulated. In Massachusetts, for example, camps are overseen primarily by local boards of health, which test such things as water quality. ACA-accredited camps (a finding tool is available at acacamps.org) are required to conduct criminal background checks on employees 18 years or older. But such checks usually won’t uncover people who were convicted of a crime as juveniles or accused but not convicted.“We live in a world that we think works like CSI,” says Smith. “And quite frankly, criminal-background checks are left to each state to develop its own system.”

What parents can do is question camps about their hiring practices and staff-return rate. “Some camps hire staff without a thorough interview or without thorough training,” says Thurber, who has given expert testimony in lawsuits resulting from problems with employees. “If this is the fourth camp where a person’s worked in four summers, maybe that’s a red flag.”

Another smart question parents – especially those on tight budgets – should have on their lists is whether the camps offer discounts or financial aid. Camps nationwide provide at least $39 million a year in scholarships – “camperships,” they call them. “You don’t have to be rich to send your child to camp,” says Smith. “That’s a customer myth.” There are also early-enrollment, sibling, and legacy discounts, payment plans, and guarantees that lock in tuition for as many years as a camper keeps returning. Parents have more negotiating power, too; while the best camps may be thriving, enrollment overall was down at 21 percent of camps last summer, according to the ACA.

That means camps are also taking longer to fill, easing the pressure on parents who are still deciding. “As people have been slower to make financial commitments, those deadlines have shifted,” says Nat Saltonstall, director of the Beaver Summer Program at Beaver Country Day School in Brookline and president of the New England chapter of the ACA. Though the most popular sessions at the best camps fill up fast, he says, “There are still plenty of spaces for those who aren’t ready to make a commitment until the spring.”

***

Not every camp decision is the right one. Sarah Levin Bourque sent her twin sons to a summer camp that didn’t live up to the glossy photos or director’s promises. But Bourque got it right the next year.

“I probably asked some more specific questions” of the second camp, says Bourque, who lives in Ashland. “I was much more careful about asking: ‘Is there really fishing? How often is there fishing? How often will he be able to go out fishing?’ And when I dropped them off at the second camp, I walked away feeling this was going to be a good place.” Her sons thought so, too, and are returning this year.

“Go with the gut,” says Bourque. “Hope for the best. And know that you can always change camps the next year if you need to.” Jon Marcus, who writes about education, grew up at the summer camp his family ran in Maine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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