Choosing the Right Summer Camp

There may be two months left before school lets out, but now is the time to start planning your child's summer activities. Many people long for the days when a parent opened the front door in the morning, wished their child a good day, and got a happy (often slightly dirty) child in return at the end of a long, hot summer day.

There are a number of reasons this occurs less often these days, including a heightened awareness or rise in crime, children's need for structure, and parents taking a more active role in educating their children. Summer is now seen as a time for cognitive as well as physical growth and offers two solid months to prepare your child for the upcoming school year. Whatever your reason for sending your child to summer camp, there are a few things you should consider before sending in your payment.

  • Decide what you are looking for in a camp. Does your child need academic reinforcement or opportunities for social exchange? Is your child ready for sleep-away camp or is a day camp more appropriate? Identify your child's needs first, then look for the camp that fits your criteria. The number of available camps can be overwhelming, so choose the one or two of the most important criteria, and then match your needs to what the camps offer. For example, if your child has special needs, finding staff that is trained in supporting those needs will be the most important criteria. If your child is struggling with reading, finding a camp that matches your school's approach to reading should be high on your list of criteria. Sending your child to a camp just because his friends are attending does not guarantee a positive experience.
  • Once you've identified what you are looking for in a camp, ask other parents for references. As specific questions about the camp such as the price, length of day, and staff-to-camper ratio. Also ask questions like "If you could change one thing about this camp, what would it be?" or "Why do you feel comfortable sending your child here?" Ask the camper about her experience as well. Ask who is her favorite staffer and why, what is her favorite activity, and if she would change camps and why or why not. Getting others' opinions does not ensure your child's experience will be flawless but it will give you information about the camp not found in the brochure.
  • Once you have narrowed down your search, visit the camps that have made your final list. Pay attention to how the counselors interact with the campers and how the children respond. Spend a significant amount of time at the camp (at least 2 hours) so you can observe different types of activities, transitions between activities, and see all of the facilities. Ask to see the cafeteria, the bunks, the nurse's station, the pool, and any other spaces your child will be using. Ask about important protocols, such as how a child reports an injury and gets treated, the camp's emergency response plan (for a camp-wide crisis such as fires or responding to an intruder), and how and when your child can contact you. These questions will help you feel more confident in sending your child to someone else's care and gives you time to discuss the procedures with your child.
  • If you choose an academic camp, speak with your child's current teacher as well as the teacher he will have in the fall. Some camps have forms they will ask you or your child's teacher to fill out regarding current academic progress and areas that need support. Make sure your child is staying on target by asking for weekly reports from camp and work samples. Ask for activities you can do with your child at home to strengthen the camp-school connection.

Cost can be another factor in choosing a camp. Some camps or community organizations offer scholarships. Don't be embarrassed to ask the camp director about the possibility of financial assistance.

Choosing the right camp for your child can create a lot of pressure for you and your spouse. Allow your child's needs to guide you as you search for the right summer experience for her. Remember, camp is supposed to be an enjoyable and memorable time so don't forget to pack bug spray, plenty of clothes, and a camera as you send her on her way this summer!

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.