It's time to get ready for summer camp, an American tradition as familiar as mosquitoes but a lot more fun. If you haven't already picked out a camp for your child to attend this summer, get started as soon as possible--camps fill up quickly, sometimes even a few months before school ends. But with almost 10,000 camps in the U.S. to choose from, you can still find one that your child will enjoy.
Your child might be ready for camp, but are you?
Even if your child is begging to go to camp, are you ready to send him? Many parents are reluctant to send their children to camp because they are afraid they won't be happy or safe there. While these concerns are natural, don't pull that sleeping bag over your head yet.
Instead, put your fears to rest by investigating each camp thoroughly, finding out about staff credentials, safety plans, and health facilities and coverage (see below for more information). Your child may not be interested in camp safety, but it's extremely important.
Finding out what your child expects from camp is also important. What interests does your child want to explore? Does your child prefer a smaller camp setting or a larger one? Does your child want to learn a new skill, or is meeting new friends more important? Children who help decide what camp they will attend are less likely to be homesick when they get there.
What types of programs do camps offer?
No matter what your needs, there's a camp program out there that can meet them. Your child may go to camp every weekday, returning home each night, or stay at camp for a month or more, enjoying day and evening activities. A camp may offer your child the opportunity to participate in many outdoor activities or may offer themed instruction and fun centered around one activity or goal.
Day camps vs. residential camps
A day camp is often ideal for the first-time camper, for younger children, or for parents who want their children close to home. Day camp programs are generally offered to children in kindergarten through junior high school, although a few have programs for preschoolers or older teens as well. Daily sessions usually run from morning to late afternoon, beginning a week or two after the end of the school year and ending a week or two before the start of the next school year. If you work and don't have flexible hours, a day camp can be a good way to meet your summertime child care needs, because many day camps offer extended care if you can't pick your child up by three or four o'clock. Most day camps also offer bus or van transportation to and from certain pickup points at regularly scheduled times.
Residential camps, also known as sleepaway camps, cater to children five years of age and older who are ready and willing to sleep away from home and participate in group activities for an extended period of time. Most residential camp sessions range from 5 days to 8 weeks, and campers can usually stay for more than one session (convenient if your child loves camp and/or if you need care for the entire summer).
Traditional camps vs. specialty camps
Traditional camps offer a broad range of activities such as team and individual sports, and arts and crafts. In addition, campers often have the chance to spend extra time participating in activities they particularly enjoy. Traditional camps are a lot of fun for children who love being outdoors.
Specialty camps, on the other hand, revolve around a certain theme or goal such as tennis, math, sailing, gymnastics, or weight loss, to name a few. You may want to send your child to a specialty camp if he or she is anxious to learn a specific skill or participate in a beloved activity.
How much do camps cost?
Before looking for a camp, decide how much you can afford to spend. Camp sessions vary in price depending upon the type of camp you choose and the number of weeks your child attends. In general, day camps are less expensive than residential camps, and nonprofit residential camps are usually less expensive than private residential camps. According to the National Camp Association, the cost of four weeks at a day camp ranges from $400 to $3,200, while the cost of four weeks at a good private residential camp ranges from $1,800 to $4,200 (or $1,100 to $2,700 for four weeks at a nonprofit residential camp).
In addition, you'll have to factor in other expenses you may have when your child goes to summer camp:
Finding and choosing camps
The summer camp industry operates year-round, even when the camps themselves aren't open. At any time during the year, most camps will send you a packet of information including brochures, schedules, price information, and sometimes videotapes. Some camps send representatives to regional camp fairs (often held in the winter or spring) where parents can get information and talk to camp personnel.
Remember, too, that you don't have to limit your search to your local area. While nearby camps may be convenient, there are great camps everywhere.
Two national camping associations can help you locate one. The American Camping Association (ACA) has an online interactive database that you can use to search for camps that meet your criteria, while the National Camp Association (NCA) sponsors a free camp advisory service (for residential and specialty camps). You can also check your telephone directory to find local camp advisory services and ask other parents for referrals. If your child is disabled, check with local social service or nonprofit agencies such as the United Way.
Choosing the right camp
After you've collected brochures and videotapes from camps that interest you, it's time to decide where your child will spend the summer. Even if you have a lot of factual information, don't decide on a camp before talking to the camp director or other official camp representative. Ideally, you should visit the camp (some operate year-round or have extended seasons), but at the very least, collect as much information as you can from each camp before making your decision. Here are some things you should find out:
Programs and facilities
Most information about camp programs and facilities can be gleaned from brochures and videos, but you should ask about anything that's not clear. For instance, you should find out whether your child will be able to choose his or her own activities. Sometimes, certain activities are required or unavailable to all campers. You should also find out whether the camp's overall philosophy matches your own and determine whether the camp's environment (e.g. rigid, relaxed, fun-oriented, learning-oriented, etc.) will be right for your child.
Never assume that a camp is safe. Although some camps are accredited by organizations that require that camps meet certain safety standards (e.g. the ACA), you should check out the camp's track record yourself. Camps are regulated at the state level (generally by state health departments), so you can find out what safety standards each camp must meet. Safety inspection reports and/or accident reports also may be available.
You should also carefully check out the credentials and training of staff members, including the camp director and camp counselors. States may require that camps have written safety plans that detail, among other things, procedures for staff hiring and training. Ask to see them. You should also find out how counselors are screened, and review their credentials, qualifications, and ages (most should be 18 or older). Since many serious accidents are water-related, make sure that water activities are closely supervised. Find out what the camp's counselor to camper ratio is (this is often regulated by states as well).
Health insurance and medical care
Camps may be required by the state to have health directors, and should have registered nurses on staff. Larger camps often have one or more physicians on staff as well. You should find out how the camp handles first aid services, including injuries and illnesses, and where the nearest hospital is. Also ask how you will be notified in case of an emergency.
Many camps require that campers take physical exams before coming to camp in order to identify health problems that may affect them during the summer. You'll probably be asked to detail your child's health history, including information about immunizations, past health problems and allergies. You should make sure that the camp can accommodate any physical limitations your child has, and will be able to distribute any medication your child needs to take.
Camps usually also require that your child be covered by medical insurance. Some camps provide medical or accident insurance (generally for a fee). If you already have insurance, call your insurer to make sure that your child will be covered at camp. If you belong to an HMO, where out-of-network providers may not be covered, find out what will happen if your child has to see a doctor that is not in the HMO's provider network or what procedures you or the camp must follow if your child needs emergency care. No matter what health insurance you have, review your policy limits and costs.
Property damage and liability issues
You should find out whether the camp has property damage and liability insurance, and check your insurance coverage as well. Although it's not likely to happen, your child's property may be stolen or damaged, or your child may injure someone or damage camp (or another camper's) property. Review your homeowners insurance policy or renters insurance policy to find out what coverage you have and what your liability limits are.
Pay attention to your instincts
Finally, as you're making your decision, pay attention to your instincts (and your child's). If something doesn't seem quite right, then it probably isn't. Don't be afraid to look for another camp--a perfect one is waiting just down the road.
ACA website, www.acacamps.org.
Please note that this description/explanation is intended only as a guideline.
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