You name the activity, the condition, the pursuit, or the theme, and there's a summer camp for it: academics, athletics, broadcasting, ceramics, clowning, drama, fishing, gardening, leadership, team building, and a host of special-needs camps.
"This is a chance for your child to explore a world bigger than his or her neighborhood and a chance for you to practice letting go," says Bruce Muchnick, a licensed psychologist who often works at day and resident camps.
Muchnick says letting go is important. It develops a child's autonomy and sense of self. Camps allow kids to make new friends and learn about teamwork and responsibility. He says it's normal for kids to be anxious prior to leaving for camp. That's your cue to pump up their confidence so, when the reality of the separation sets in, they'll be able to deal with it.
How can anybody be sure that a camp will be safe and that the kids will have a fun and rewarding time?
There's no easy answer to such questions. Much depends on the child and the camp, and how they mesh.
Some parents take solace in American Camp Association accreditation. Some 2,200 of the 8,500 summer camps across the country (resident and day camps included) pay to undergo certification by the ACA in roughly 300 different criteria, including staff, health, safety, and program quality. The ACA publishes a book annually, Guide to ACA-Accredited Camps, that categorizes and lists various summer camps. Also, you can search for a summer camp at the ACA Web site.
But lack of an ACA stamp of approval doesn't always mean a camp is unsafe or of questionable quality. Here are some topics the ACA recommends that you discuss with camp officials:
- Educational and career background of the camp director.
- The camper return rate. How many kids come back for second and additional stays (a good sign they're having fun)?
- Counselors. How old are they? How many of them will be returning? What is the counselor-to-camper ratio? (ACA recommends one staff for every six nondisabled campers.) How are they trained?
- Visiting the camp. Arrange to visit some of your favorites. In addition to questioning the staff, observe and talk to campers to determine whether they're having a good experience.
- Emergency procedures. Find out if there are a fire station, police department, and hospital nearby.
For a lifetime of memories, you can expect to pay $20 to $100 a day at your summer camp -- not including transportation to and from the site, according to the ACA.
Private camps tend to be pricier than their nonprofit counterparts. But don't let price influence you about quality. Some of the best values might be YMCA or religious camps. If you're really sold on a camp but the cost seems out of reach, inquire about "camperships," scholarships that many camps grant on an as-needed basis.
In addition to straight costs, make sure that you ask each camp about its refund policies and other expenses. You don't want to be stuck with a full fee if you learn at the last minute your child won't be attending.