Unless you are a Chicago parent who happens to be reading this from afar, you are—like it or not—in the cold. And while most of us are dreaming of summer, few of us have given a thought to summer camp.
Not so for camp operators, who say this is exactly the time parents need to think about it. In fact, they say, it may already be too late.
A general rule of thumb in selecting a summer camp is to get started a year in advance. This allows time for research, site visits while camps are in session and the best chance for enrolling your child in the the camp of his dreams.
All is not lost, however, if you did not spend all of 2004 looking for just the right camp for 2005.
Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the American Camp Association, Illinois, says there’s still time and plenty of choices. The Chicago area is home to more than 100 accredited day and overnight camps, and there are more than 12,000 camps nationwide, about 2,300 of which have been accredited by the national association. Accreditation means the camp has met numerous standards for health, safety and program quality.
But how do you know which one is right for your child?
The American Camp Association’s Web site is a good place to start. Visit www.acail.org to search the database by such criteria as accreditation, cost, location and activities. Or call the Illinois office at (312) 332-0833 for free advice.
“A lot of camps start marketing in the fall, but it is still possible to find space at a camp and session you want,” Kaplan says. He does, however, recommend making camp decisions in January or February. And, he says, parents should think of camp as more than just summer childcare. Rather, he says, it is an opportunity for youth development and part of the year-round education of a child.
“Don’t limit yourself to only researching camps that have been recommended to you,” Kaplan says. “Make camp an intentional decision, not just following what others are doing.”
While it may be easier initially for a child to attend camp with friends, this makes it a lot more difficult to make new friends at camp, camp directors say.
Do the research Dayna Hardin, director of Lake of the Woods Camp for girls and Greenwoods Camp for boys in Decatur, Mich., suggests parents visit Web sites (more than two-thirds of accredited camps have Web sites) and narrow searches based on criteria most important to them, whether it be the camp’s location, philosophy or activities.
“Let your children have a buy-in from the start,” Hardin suggests. “Parents may want to narrow the search initially, but the kids need to be involved and have a say in the selection.”
Ilise Schwartzwald, owner of Discovery Day Camp in Lincolnshire, says she finds that children want to feel secure and protected when they are at camp. “Once they feel safe, they want to try new things,” Schwartzwald says. That means it’s important to find a camp that offers individual attention to each camper’s needs and expectations, she says.
“The camp decision shouldn’t be so much about the activities but about a good fit of the total package,” Kaplan says.
Nearly 90 percent of accredited camps offer swimming and 45 percent offer horseback riding. More recent trends include the addition of such adventure activities as ropes courses, wall climbing, mountain biking and cave exploring.
Check it out Camp sources recommend that parents visit directly with the camp directors—in person, if possible, but at least by phone.
“If a camp is not available to welcome visitors, that’s a sign right there,” Kaplan says. “Visitors should be welcome, and the camp should have a relaxed feel.”
Schwartzwald says: “Ideally it’s best to see the camp in session. But, if not, visit with the director and go see the camp at other times. You can still see the facilities, and we have displays set up, too.”
Most camps welcome individual calls and appointments with parents, and many host open houses. “It’s really nice for the child to see what camp is all about,” Hardin says. “It also gives a visual image for the parents. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask as much as you want until you feel comfortable.” (See questions to ask camp directors below.)
In determining which camp is right for your child, and particularly whether she is ready for an overnight camp, trust your instincts as a parent.
There is “absolutely no way you can say a particular age or recipe. It’s so variable,” says Gillian McNamee, director of teacher education at the Erikson Institute in Chicago. “Families differ so much in patterns of social outings, sleepovers, etc. The decision has a lot to do with the child’s readiness and comfort. I think a parent can tell.”
He suggests the best method is to “really think of your decision as filling a child’s day with activities they will enjoy and benefit from.”
Rona Roffey, director of YMCA Camp Duncan in Ingleside, oversees both day and overnight camps. Day camps usually start at a younger age, about kindergarten, and go through eighth grade. Resident camps at Camp Duncan are for ages 7-18.
Prices vary Cost also is a factor in the camp decision. Overnight camp fees generally range from $200 to $400 per week, while day camps range from $75 to $300 per week, according to the camp association.
Prices vary depending on a number of factors, including whether the camp is independent or nonprofit, the type of activities offered, the camp location and its popularity. For example, don’t expect a price break if there is a waiting list, but do ask whether the camp offers financial assistance—nearly 65 percent of accredited camps do, the association says. In addition, ask for creative payment arrangements.
At both resident and day camps, you will find the same general staff base: college students. This, Kaplan argues, is good because college students often are better able to relate to young campers. “They don’t have to be there,” Kaplan says. “What they bring is youth, energy and enthusiasm.”
So why send your child to summer camp? The association’s Web site says: “Children and adults have the opportunity to learn powerful lessons in community, character-building, skill development and healthy living—lessons that can be learned nowhere else.”
Countdown January • Jan. 22-23: attend Camp and Summer Adventure Fair (see page 70, or visit www.chicagoparent.com) • Determine your camp budget and what type of camp fits your child’s needs and interests • Research camps February • Interview camp directors • Schedule site visits • Register for camp March/April/May • Confirm camp registration needs are met • Attend camp open houses and welcome events
The American Camp Association, Illinois, recommends the following questions to get you started on your camp research. A complete list is available at www.acail.org or by calling (312) 332-0833. What is the camp philosophy and program emphasis? What is the camp director’s background? Who makes up the staff, how do they handle issues and how are they supervised? How does the camp protect campers from abuse, neglect and teasing? How does the staff help campers who have trouble making friends, adjusting to camp or trying to fit in? What happens when a camper breaks the rules? What are the rules regarding communication between parents and children? What are the policies about parents visiting before or during camp? May I have references from other families in my community who currently have children attending the camp?
Kristi Torres is a writer who lives in Oak Park with her husband, three children, dog and two frogs.