Weighing Options and Choosing the Right Camp for Your Child

Weighing Options and Choosing the Right Camp for Your Child

Photo by Kim Stahnke Photography

The winter chill may have some families dreaming of summer, which is apropos given that many summer camps are already registering campers for the warmer months. Most programs offer a mix of educational, fine arts and sports experiences, but it can be hard to know what is available and what might be the best bet for your child.

To help you get a handle on your summer program options, here’s a list of camps by category, as well as useful tips from camp directors to help you select the experience that’s right for your children. 

Academic Camps
Academic camps are an option for parents who are concerned that their child’s language, math and writing skills may slide during the summer. 

Vanessa Diffenbacher, Lawrence School associate head of school and Lower School head, says that academic camps not only help curb the “summer slide,” but also can burnish skills that a child may not have fully mastered the previous school year. 

Diffenbacher advises parents searching for an academic camp to find out what sort of approaches to teaching the program’s instructors use before enrolling their child. If a child didn’t grasp ideas under similar approaches during the preceding school year, a new approach might be warranted. Conversely, if a child showed progress during the year, parents may want to continue that approach over the summer. 

A child’s attitude toward school is a good indicator as to whether an academic camp is right for them. Diffenbacher says that even in the first grade, children have a sense if they can’t read as well as their peers. In such instances, academic camps might bolster a child’s self-esteem. 

“Usually if they are saying that they don’t like school, there’s something deeper,” she says. “There might be a struggle, an anxiety, a frustration.”

Arts Camps
If a family has a budding artist or performer, then an arts camp might be the right venue for them. 

Michael Lund Ziegler, education director for the Fine Arts Association in Willoughby, says that there are generally two types of arts camps: multi-arts camps, which offer a mix of fine arts programs, and specific-arts camps, which focus on a particular area, such as music. Arts camps not only present children with opportunities to engage others socially, but also to explore the arts and their creativity on a deeper level in various mediums.  

Lund Ziegler advises parents looking for an arts camp to consider how opportunities for learning will be presented by the faculty. A good indicator of a quality program is if instructors talk about actively engaging the students so that they learn the value and substance of the art being presented. 

Day Camps
Day camps often are used by families in place of daycare during the summer, but the two differ in that day camps offer a more structured curriculum for children. 

Ashley Garson, director of camp and youth at Camp JCC at the Shaw JCC of Akron, says day camps offer a mix of educational and recreational activities for children supervised by trained professionals. Unlike overnight camps, children spend several or more hours at a site, then return home at day’s end. Garson notes that day camps give a child a chance to foster autonomy and independence away from their parents while still returning to the comforts of home each evening.

 When selecting a day camp, Garson urges parents to consider such things as whether a staff is trained for emergency situations, how well staff members are vetted and whether there are established lines of communication with parents. 

“They should also take a tour of facilities and see where their camper is going to be,” Garson says. 

Overnight Camps
Overnight or “sleepaway” camps involve staying away from home for an extended period of time, ranging from a single night to multiple weeks. Overnight camps usually have full-time professional staff and provide accommodations, meals and support services for campers. Children take part in traditional camping activities, such as arts and crafts, archery, canoeing, hiking, horseback riding and swimming. 

Richard Basnett, executive director of YMCA Camp Tippecanoe, advises parents to check if a camp is a member of a professional accreditation organization, such as the American Camp Association (ACA) and the Christian Camp and Conference Association (CCCA). Basnett also advises parents to ask camp personnel about how they will deal with behavioral, emergency or medical situations, including discipline and homesickness. Camp directors and nursing staff should be readily available to discuss such issues. 

“If they are not available, then that would raise a red flag in my mind,” Basnett says. 

Specialty Camps
Specialty camps emphasize a particular interest, such as language, music or social skills. Other types of specialty camps may focus on specific activities, like horseback riding, pottery or sailing. 

Catherine Holloway, owner of Etiquette Consulting Services, says that specialty camps can help a child hone skills or talents that will help them throughout their lifetime. 

When selecting a specialty camp, Holloway suggests that parents ask instructors what activities are scheduled during camp. For her camps, Holloway provides handouts as to what will be addressed during class time. 

“Parents should ask what the skill set will be at the end,” Holloway says. 

Sports Camps
Generally, there are two types of sports camps: single-sport and multi-sport. Single-sport camps focus on helping campers develop skills and confidence in a particular sport. Multi-sport camps, such as those offered by i9 Sports, offer a mix of age-appropriate activities such as baseball, flag football, lacrosse and soccer. Joey Holibaugh, i9 Sports athletic director for Cuyahoga and Summit counties, says the multi-sport approach allows parents to find out what their child’s interests are rather than deciding for them. If a child has fun playing baseball or soccer, then they’ll probably tell mom and dad about it. That sort of information is useful for parents when selecting what sport or league to join in the fall. 

When considering a sports camp, Holibaugh suggests parents read online reviews and look for structured programs with experienced, tenured employees. Another helpful criterion is program longevity. 

“As a dad, I’m less likely to sign up my son for something if he’s the first one that’s trying it,” he says with a laugh.

STEM Camps
A STEM camp allows a child to develop science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills through hands-on experiments, field trips and projects. Kathy Kwiatkowski, director of math and science programs at Case Western Reserve University’s Leonard Gelfand STEM Center, says that STEM camps reinforce what children learn in the classroom while exposing them to new scientific concepts through unique opportunities.


Undecided About Camp? Review these Considerations

Summer camp sounds like a lot of fun for your child. Then again, maybe it doesn’t. They’ll be away from home surrounded by strangers in an unfamiliar place. And there’s no guarantee that they will enjoy camp activities. 

If you’re one of the many parents who are undecided about sending your child to a camp, there are a number of things that you should consider before making a decision. Along with date, time and cost considerations, a dialogue between parent and child is one of the first steps to a positive camping experience. 

A few pointed questions between parent and child should be part of any conversation regarding camp, says Kwiatkowski.

Here are some things parents can address:

  1. Talk with your child about their interests. Basnett recommends that parents gauge their kids’ interests — and their own — before selecting a camp. If a child has a particular interest in the outdoors, such as canoeing or fishing, then they will likely enjoy a traditional outdoor summer camp. An online view and in-person visits of campgrounds are options to spark a child’s interest in a camp, Basnett says. 
  2. Consider Age. Parents should consider a child’s age before sending them to camp. Children younger than age 7 may not adjust easily to being away from home. In those cases, parents should consider a day camp to prepare their child for future overnight camp visits. Kwiatkowski suggests that parents discuss how camp personnel address behavioral issues and if your child has special needs.
  3. Do you like working in teams? For many children, camp may be the first time that they work with others. Getting a sense of whether a child is ready for that means asking questions about teamwork like you might in an employment interview, Kwiatkowski says. 
  4. Discuss expectations of camp with your kids. Sometimes the difficulty of selecting a camp doesn’t lie with the child at all. “Sometimes parents have trouble letting go of the kids,” Basnett says. “They’re more worried about the kid going to camp than the kid is about going to camp.”

Fostering Independence 

If, after weighing such considerations, parents remain undecided about sending their child to a camp, there is another factor that they may want to consider: Their child’s independence. 

Garson says even a few hours at a day camp can help a child learn how to function autonomously away from their parents. 

“It’s a perfect place to spread their wings,” she says.

Independence, new friends and good memories are some of the reasons that camp professionals cite as to why parents should consider camp for their children. Another potential reason may be that the experience helps a child to discover who they are. 

Lund Ziegler credits his experiences in band and jazz camps as a youth with bringing greater focus to his interest in music. 

“It showed me some of the possibilities that were there in that creative outlet for me,” Lund Ziegler says.

While freely admitting he has a pro-camp bias, Basnett believes that every child should experience camp, especially if parents want to limit a child’s screen and video game time. 

“It helps the kid grow up,” he says. “When they make it to the end of the week, it just raises their self-esteem.”

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