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How to Choose a Summer Camp

Explore options, ask questions to ensure the right fit

March 10, 2011

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Now is the time to be thinking about summer camps. Indeed, camp directors are already gearing up for increases in enrollment this year.

The good news is that there are more choices in summer camps than ever before with activities ranging from horseback riding to scuba diving to computer programming. You can find language-based summer camps where your child can learn French or Mandarin. There are camps for kids interested in sports broadcasting, culinary arts, music, and marine biology. And the traditional nature camps with swimming, hiking, and boating are still very popular and better than ever.

So, with more than 1,000 accredited camps in New England and more than 3,000 different summer programs, how do you find the right camp for your child?

Many parents find out about camps by word of mouth, talking to other parents. But if you're just beginning the search, or want to see what's new, this resource guide and the internet are good places to start.

Let this supplement be a primer to what's out there, then follow up for more information online. "Camps have become better at promoting themselves online," says Mike Polakofft from Mass- Camps.com, a camp directory for New England. Camp websites now feature videos, streaming graphics, and helpful information such as full schedules, packing lists, and details on their accreditations.

"It's a good idea to find a few camps with activities that your child would be interested in and start calling the directors to get a feel for what's right," says John Marcus, MassCamps.com founder, who often answers questions from parents looking for camps. Next, it's important to consider what your child may be ready for.

According to nationally recognized expert on family life, Lynne Griffin, and author of Negotiation Generation: Take Back Your Parental Authority without Punishment, when you're looking for a camp, knowing your child's temperament is the number one consideration.

"Summer camp can be a wonderful and memorable time for children that can enhance and reinforce the learning they do in school," says Griffin. But, she says, you have to choose a camp that's fun, safe, and right for them to get those benefits.

For example, Griffin says that a physically active child who likes to run around and play wouldn't benefit from sitting still in a French camp all summer. Conversely, a child who is quieter or more contemplative may not be able to make the most of an intense sports camp. Often what's good for one sibling isn't always a fit for another. It's important to take each child's needs into consideration.

"Summer camp is not the time to up the ante with learning," says Griffin. "You want the ultimate goal of the camp to be fun. That's when the child will succeed."

And the experts agree that the right fit can provide the child with new confidence and independence and even skills in negotiation and team building by teaching them to work collaboratively and to master a different environment. Many camps encourage activity and discourage electronics, so unless you're looking for a tech-savvy computer camp, you're likely to find many places unplugged. Kids have to unplug from their phones and Xboxes and find other things to do. And, not surprisingly, the kids find that they like it that way.

"There is evidence that the subtle activities based learning kids do in summer camp helps increase the learning outcomes in the classroom," says Maryellen Deschenes, administrative director of Maine Youth Camping Association.

Deschenes advises parents to take their time with their search and talk to as many camps as they can. If it's possible, even visit the camp and take a tour. About one in three camps in New England has earned national accreditation through the American Camp Association (ACA), which means they meet more than 300 standards of safety and health compliance regulations. The accreditation can be useful to parents choosing a camp.

But, says Lucy Norvell, ACA New England's director of public information, even a camp without that accreditation may still be a very good camp. Some camps may be in the process of accreditation, or they are small and don't have the manpower to devote to the long process of becoming accredited. If you're concerned, the camp's director should be able to answer your questions.

"Camp helps kids to step out of their roles and spread their wings," says Jennifer Cavazos, admission director at Camp Thoreau in Concord. "There's more freedom, more nurturing and the groups are smaller than in school. Kids can really shine in that environment."

Cavazos also advises talking to directors and staff to see if their camp philosophy matches how you think. "The more interviews you do, the more you'll be able to say what you're looking for your child to get out of the experience."