Choosing a summer camp in Chicago
Simple steps to help decide where to send the kids this summer
Monday, January 30, 2012
Sports camp, religious camp, equestrian camp, dance camp, cheerleading camp, day camp, overnight camp, outdoor camp, band camp-the list goes on and on.
For parents, answering the when, how and where of the camp decision can be a daunting experience rivaled, perhaps, only by the feeling of dropping the kids off for the first time.
The potential anxiety likely grows for parents with little or no personal ties to camp life, according to one expert.
My camp ties are limited to two years of Chicago Park District day camp at Blackhawk Park in the late 1980s and a University of Minnesota baseball camp after high school graduation. Overnight camping, fishing and general outdoor fun were something that happened on family trips, not in the company of dozens of other kids.
With that backdrop, the search began for an understanding of what camp is really about these days. Step #1 was to figure out exactly where to start. The answer came after a few mouse clicks led me to the American Camp Association's Illinois office.
Executive Director Gordie Kaplan quickly offered his best piece of advice. "I would suggest people call me," Kaplan says, adding he can give pinpoint answers to specific questions.
He's certainly got the background to tackle such questions. Kaplan has spent 40 years with ACA, seeing all the trends and challenges that come with maintaining interest and viability in camps. He's watched as suburbanization outside Chicago has swallowed up territory where camps once operated. And, now, he's keeping an eye on how technology is used to help kids get excited about going away to camp.
Kaplan-who holds a degree in camping-says to keep things simple to start. He recommends first-time campers try a traditional camp instead of a specialty camp, which can focus on a sport or talent.
"I suggest parents not limit themselves," Kaplan says. "One way to burn out a young athlete (or performer) is to overdose."
Traditional camps "try to provide a diverse palette" consisting of outdoor excursions and managed risk activities with a goal of increasing a child's confidence and independence, while broadening their experiences.
"They give more opportunities for the child to excel," Kaplan says.
Most overnight camps serving the Chicago area are now located in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, but they still offer an unmistakable mystique in Kaplan's view.
"It's a special experience to be out away from the city where sights and sounds are different," he says.
For some families, that's not an option, which is the reason for another trend noted by Kaplan: "Now, there are more day camps."
Going to camp in your neighborhood
Sixty-five percent of camps have reported steady or increased enrollment in the last five years, ACA research indicates.
The number of day camps alone has grown 90 percent since the early 1990s. Most park districts around Chicagoland offer some type of camp program to keep kids active while out of school.
One place where the popularity of day camps is obvious is the Chicago Park District. Its program annually has around 30,000 campers in 230 parks across the city. That means parents need to sign their kids up early to lock in a spot at their preferred camp.
"It's very popular (and) kind of competitive," park district spokesman Marta Juaniza says.
Chicago's program hasn't changed much over the years. It runs six hours a day for six weeks, with extended time available in the morning and afternoon to accommodate parents' schedules. Pricing ranges from $1 to $3 per hour depending on the camp, Juaniza says.
Park district campers are offered daily activities that include sports, nature and arts activities, and swim time. Specialty camps for urban campers and those interested in the performing arts vary from year to year, with a learning-to-sail camp being one of the newest offerings, Juaniza explains.
"It's having something structured that's also fun … while making friends and making connections," she says.
There are no restrictions on which camp in Chicago a child can go to, but that's where space and availability can become an issue. A new website will aid in the registration process, visitchicagoparkdistrict.com.
Day camps are an affordable alternative to overnight programs and also act as a way to ease everyone into something very different than day care, Kaplan says.
"The focus is on fun and adventure," he says. "Camp provides an opportunity for a child to be independent."
Making the choice
Whether you're talking about overnight or day camp, Kaplan encourages parents and children to make choices together. He suggests visiting camps so the kids can see their peers in action. Many places have websites or DVDs that give an active presentation on a particular camp experience.
"It's real important to involve the child in the decision," he says.
Although the learning curve for kids is always top-of-mind for parents, Kaplan points out the adults also have to assess their readiness when it comes to sending their kids away to camp.
Kaplan suggests, "Are they willing to let go?" and, "Are they going to be comfortable?" as two questions parents need to consider about themselves.
If finances are an issue, ACA and the Illinois Department of Human Services offer camp grants to families who receive medical care from the state. The referral process for this program, which has limited space, begins in April.
"It helps kids from the cities have more appreciation for the out of doors," Kaplan says.
Dan Campana is a dad and freelance writer living in Streamwood.