With Old Man Winter's chilly stranglehold tight as ever, summer might seem like it will never arrive. While it might be true that it's hard to recall those warm, lazy days, summer edges closer with each lengthening day.
And there's no better time to begin preparing for how your children will fill those idle hours.
"The prime time for choosing a summer camp is the winter months," says Jeff Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association Inc. "Once we get to spring, most camps are filled, so early planning is to the advantage of parents."
In the region and across the nation, more than 12,000 overnight and thousands more day camps promise your children the time of their lives. But navigating the torrent of information and trying to decide if your son or daughter is ready for camp and what camp would be right for his or her unique personality can be like canoeing upstream without a paddle.
Fortunately for floundering parents, camps exist for virtually every interest and personality, says Nancy Diamond, president and founder of Niche Directories. "It's almost as if a camp has been created for every type of child," says Diamond, whose directories list more than 20,000 summer camp options. "That's what's so great about summer camps-there is something for everyone."
And, every child should have the opportunity to take part in one of youth's quintessential elements.
"I think summer camp is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child," says Jill Tipograph, founder and director of Everything Summer, a New York-based consulting firm that helps parents across the nation find the best camp for their children. "It provides children a time and place where they can unconditionally be themselves, where they do not feel judged, where people will not talk about them being different. Camp counselors and staff work on a sense of equality and no matter what your background, everyone has to learn how to get along with other people. Summer camp is a place where kids can take safe risks, prove themselves capable and then gain the greatest self-esteem for trying new things."
Tipograph, who spends her summer visiting summer camps across the nation and has worked with Midwestern families on finding the ideal camp for their kids, says the best option for young, first-time campers is a day camp program.
"I don't know any child who has gone to overnight camp that hasn't gone to day camps," she adds. "They get to try new things and get the same nurturing and growth, they get to learn how to be with other people, be responsible and have mini-trips, but they know they can come home at night and feel safe."
In and around Chicago, Illinois Action for Children, part of the Cook County Resource and Referral Service, maintains a database of day camps and summer park programs for 5- to 13-year-olds, says Kanella Maniatis, a child care consultant with the agency.
Year-round, licensed day care providers, recreational programs, churches, museums, community centers and parks departments contact the agency about summer offerings. When parents call the group, they are connected with an intake counselor, who asks about their municipality and needs, and are sent a list of possible programs, Maniatis says.
"There are some very specific day camps out there, so it's very important the parents knows what their child desires and ask about options," Maniatis adds.
It's also important that parents know when their child has grown out of day camps, experts agree.
Solomon explains that more often than not, it's the children themselves who indicate they are ready for overnight camps.
"They talk about friends going away to camp, they do overnights at friends' homes and do fine with that-those are the signs that a child might want that independence," Solomon explains. "Many times it's the parent who's not ready and I don't know if a parent is ever ready, but we have to do our best."
To that end, camp experts stress that parents do not share with their children any fears about sending them away to camp.
"Children will see that doubt and anxiety and internalize it and the last thing you want is a child who felt good about it to become apprehensive because they looked to their parents for emotional guidance," he says.
And including your children's input about choosing the camp that best matches their needs and personalities will foster positive emotions and excitement despite it being a new experience, Diamond says.
No doubt, homesickness will occur, but it's completely natural. Soon, however, kids realize they can manage separation from parents.
Contrary to what many believe, longer camp experiences are generally more successful.
"I tell parents their children should be away for at least four weeks because for most kids, the first week is an adjustment phase, they might be homesick, they aren't really getting the full camp experience," Tipograph says. "But if you can only afford two weeks, you have to be realistic about what they are going to come home with. In that short of time they are not going to come home with big awards or the trophy and the strength of their friendships will likely be weaker because your child hasn't had the time to transition."
Age also plays a role in a successful first camp experience.
"Kids at a young age are more likely to be with other young first-time campers and they tend to be less self aware, whereas teenagers going for the first time are going to be more self-conscious and have more fears," Solomon says.
The most important key to ensuring a successful summer camp experience complete with life lessons, new friends and happy memories is finding the right match.
"If the child next door is very athletic and loves sports, his parents might choose more of a sports camp and for that child. That's great, but if your child is more arts oriented, a sports camp might be a bad fit," Solomon says.
"Parents need to look at their goals. For one parent, having their child come back a better tennis player is the objective, for another it's having their child develop interpersonal skills and independence. It's not a matter of good or bad camps, but what's appropriate for one child might not be appropriate for another."
Do plan ahead. As they say in camp, the early bird gets the worm. Begin your research and plan now to facilitate the best possible summer camp experience for your child.
Do include your child's input. Discuss with your children their goals, aspirations and fears about camp to learn about their readiness and to help focus your search.
Do talk to the camp director. Speak to the camp director to find out camp philosophy, its mission and about camp employees.
Do ask about camp policy. Understanding camp guidelines-communication with parents, discipline, medical emergencies, security precautions and other camp regulations-will give you and your children peace of mind that they will be safe.
Do consider costs. Fully understand what your money will be paying for. Find out if there are additional costs for travel, equipment, side trips or visits to the cantina.
Don't let cost be prohibitive. Countless scholarships, camperships and financial assistance packages are awarded to campers each year by religious groups, non-profit organizations and camps themselves to help offset summer camp cost.
Don't forget your benefit. With your child away for several weeks, you'll have lots of time to regroup, relax and remember why you enjoy being a parent.
Don't let your fears get in the way. It's natural to worry about your child leaving home for several weeks, but your child could easily internalize those fears and make them their own.
Don't live vicariously through your child. Pushing your child toward a summer camp that you would have loved to attend, instead of finding a camp that truly supports their unique personality and talents, could easily result in miserable camp memories.
Don't be discouraged. With more than 12,000 overnight camps in the nation and thousands more day camps, you will find the perfect camp for your child.