Choose the Summer Program That's Right for Your Child

Setting your priorities first will help you sort through the specialty programs and camps to find the best ones for your child.

By GreatSchools Staff

As any busy parent knows, summer isn't what it used to be. It often means replacing the routine of school and after-school care with a patchwork of camps, lessons, temporary child care arrangements and family vacations. It's also a chance for your child to learn and grow by sampling a new activity, developing her talents and becoming more independent.

Making the right choices for your child is a balancing act, says Dr. Judith Myers-Walls, a child development expert at Purdue University. "You have to balance your needs with your goals to give your child new experiences and your child's needs."

Camps Come in All Shapes and Sizes

In many communities, there is an abundance of choice. There are 12,000 camps in the U.S., according to the nonprofit American Camp Association, which accredits about a quarter of them. The programs are operated by private companies, local parks and recreation departments, and nonprofit community or religious organizations. They fall into these general types, although there are programs that combine a number of elements:

Special interest programs

These focus on a sport, the arts, science or technology. They can be half-day or full-day programs and are often called "camps" although they don't involve camping.

Day camps

These can be a good, relatively low-cost introduction to camp for younger children. They typically include the hiking, swimming and crafts programs of a traditional camp without the overnight stay.

Sleepaway camps

Ranging from very rustic to downright posh, these overnight camps typically offer a two- to eight-week-long outdoor experience for a range of ages that includes sports and arts and crafts. Many offer a one-week option for first-time campers. Some sleepaway camps focus on a particular activity, such as music.

Camps for children with special needs

The Americans for Disabilities Act requires that camps make accommodations, such as wheelchair ramps, for children with special needs. But there are also a number of camps especially tailored to children with learning or behavioral problems, chronic illness and developmental disabilities.

Here's how to get started finding out what's right for your child and family.

Consider Your Needs - and Your Budget

If you need full-time care for your child all summer, the costs can quickly add up so you'll want to first consider your overall budget.

Many day camp programs end early in the afternoon or only last a few weeks. That means working parents need to include the cost of after-camp child care or babysitting in their planning. The cost of summer programs varies widely. The most recent estimate from the American Camp Association is that the average day camp costs $303 a week. But camps that are operated by local governments or nonprofit organizations often cost less. And there are plenty of camps that cost more.

"But the fee does not equate with equality," says Ann Sheets, executive director of the American Camp Association, which accredits day and sleepaway camps.

Miriam Silver, a mother of an 11-year-old boy in Sebastapol, CA, has sent her son to a city-operated day camp several summers that costs $125 a week, much less than the national average.

"It's at a beautiful lake with hiking trails," she says. "They get dirty. They get independent. He doesn't usually canoe. He doesn't fish. But he does that week."

The average cost of a sleepaway camp is about $597 a week, according to the ACA. If you're considering sending your child away to camp, you'll need to factor in transportation to camp for your child and for you, if you're planning to visit.

No matter what program you're conside

ring, be sure to ask about scholarships because many camps offer them.

Once you've figured out your overall budget, you'll need to ask at each camp you consider what the overall fee includes. Does it cover snacks and meals? Does it cover materials, such as arts and craft supplies, and all the activities the camp offers? Are you required to buy a camp uniform or sports gear?

Cost-cutting tips

Sometimes you have to get creative to stay within your summer budget. You may want to pool your resources with a few other parents to hire an energetic teenager for the after-camp care you need. Or you might want to join with a small group of other parents who are able to stay at home for a day or two at a time to create your own day camp. You can provide a fun yet inexpensive week by combining a trip to the lake, an outing at a science museum, story hour at the library, baking projects that incorporate math lessons and a nature walk or two. Trying this low-cost alternative might help you save for a week of the soccer camp your child has been begging to attend.

Consider Your Child's Needs

There's general agreement that most children are ready for sleepaway camp by the time they are nine or 10 years old, but every child has a different temperament and developmental timetable. Is your child comfortable staying overnight with friends or relatives? Is he excited at the prospect of camp? Talk to your pediatrician or your child's teacher if you're not sure your child is ready.

Your child may have loved her day camp last summer, but that doesn't mean she'll want to go year after year. Children's needs change as they grow, and your 10-year-old may have developed interests that make a special interest program in volleyball or dance a better option than day camp or sleepaway camp.

Summers can be even trickier for parents of teens, who may want more free time than their parents are comfortable allowing. Many campers "graduate" to become counselors-in-training or junior counselors, a great way to combine the experience of camp with the responsibilities of a job.

Consider Your Goals for Your Child

Summer is a great time for your child to sample new activities, and there's likely to be a summer program that includes just about any you can think of, whether it's video production, yoga, rock-climbing or songwriting.

Whatever new experience you'd love to introduce to your child, experts advise that you involve him in the process of choosing, whether it's the type of camp or the length of his stay. It's a way for a child to retain a sense of control, and also a way to head off homesickness if he's heading to sleepaway camp.

"The child needs to buy in and have some choice," says the ACA's Sheets.

Myers-Walls, the Purdue psychologist, also advises parents to involve their children in planning for summer. But that doesn't mean you don't push them a bit, she says.

"As a parent you may say 'my child is afraid of any spider in the house' and I know a nature experience is going to make her a little uncomfortable,'" she says. "That doesn't mean you don't do it. You'll just want to look for ways to make your child less uncomfortable."

You can help your child feel more at home outdoors by giving her some practice. Plan a family weekend at a nearby campground this spring or help her organize a campout with friends in her own backyard.

Do Your Homework

Once you've narrowed down your choices to those that fit your needs and budget, talk to other parents, check the local newspaper, library, parks and recreation department and community organizations like the YMCA to find out about your options. There are camp fairs in many metropolitan areas where you can meet representatives from summer programs in your area.

A Google search will show you that there are many camp advisory sites on the Web. They are free and can be helpful in showing your range of choices. But remember that sites often make money by selling advertising to the camps they list, and their recommendation isn't a substitute for you doing your homework.

"Going to any Web site is just one part of choosing a camp," says Sheets.

Check the ACA Web site to see a list of the organization's accredited camps. A camp on this list has met the organization's extensive list of standards for its site, staff, health and safety, food service, programs and transportation.

However, some very good camps choose not to apply for accreditation, acknowledges Sheets. Those with long waiting lists, for example, don't feel they need to go through the extensive process, which costs a camp money and staff time.

In any case, you'll want to see if the camp is a good fit for your child. Your best sources of information are the director and parents whose children have been there. Ask the camp director for references if you don't know parents whose children have attended.

Many camps post lovely pictures on their brochures or Web sites, but parents still need to ask detailed questions about the facilities.

"I'd be particularly interested in where the kids are sleeping," says Sheets. "I've slept in cabins, in tents and out under the stars. They're very different experiences."

You'll also want to see if your child will be happy with the camp's culture. If the brochure emphasizes the sports program, for example, a parent should ask what specific activities make up that program.

"There are great camps that are extremely competitive," says Sheets. "And great camps that are not."

Plan Now for Next Year

The best time to visit a camp or program is when it's in session. While it's too late for that this year, you may want to factor a camp visit into your vacation plans this summer.

Bring your list of questions, talk to the director, take in the scenery, but most of all, watch the way the staff treats the campers and the campers treat each other. That will help you get a head start on your planning for next year.