Despite the still chilly weather, now is when your kids can start dreaming of swimming, canoeing, hiking and campfire songs. It's the perfect time to begin planning your little ones' summer schedules and to consider sending them to overnight summer camps.
But when it comes to picking away camps for your kids, it's hard to know where to start and exactly what questions to ask.
"When it comes to summer camps, you have tons of options and only you know your child best to be able to select the best fit for them," according to Kim Kiser, vice president of camping for YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago.
"For example, many camps offer mini or starter sessions for two to three days, which is great for a parent who is unsure about how their child will fare or for nervous campers. And there are always weekly and monthly options, too," Kiser says.
She advises that one of the first steps to narrowing your search for overnight summer camps is checking if the camps are American Camp Association accredited with almost 300 standards required.
According to Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the ACA Illinois, the main purpose of the accreditation program is to establish guidelines for policies, procedures and practices to help with camp operations.
"The ACA represents over 2,400 accredited camps and the reality is that camp is more than just fun in the sun. Camp allows for growth and youth development that is rarer and rarer in our culture today," Kaplan says.
"A family cannot duplicate giving their child an independent living experience with peers where they are supported and there is an emphasis on relating to others and getting along with your peers-all without parental help."
Missy Thompson, a Chicago mom of three, always knew she wanted her kids to experience overnight camp and has sent her two oldest to Camp Tecumseh in Brookston, Ind., for the past few summers.
"Camp Tecumseh was recommended to us as having great counselors, which I thought was very important and a good place to start when selecting summer camp," says Thompson.
In addition to getting recommendations from friends and family, Kiser suggests picking your top three camps and calling the camp directors with questions such as how staff are screened, the electronic policies and how activity selection works.
"It's important for parents shopping for summer camps to go beyond just the camp websites and start an actual director-parent relationship to help you make your decision easier," Kiser says.
Kaplan agrees. "The ACA website is a great place to start for suggestions of what questions to ask of a camp director while searching for the perfect camp."
Kiser also advises an in-person tour of the camp you select, with your camper on the tour with you.
"When a child comes to visit in advance, the jitters on check-in day or homesickness is almost always eliminated by the pre-visit that helped them become comfortable with the camp setting," Kiser says.
Often one of the challenges of sending your kids to overnight camp is that the parents are overly worried about how the experience will be.
"If a child wants to go to camp, they may be nervous or anxious, but they will go. But if they pick up from mom or dad that they have anxiety, the kids take it on themselves. Parents need to support their kids and encourage the idea of going to camp and being independent," Kaplan says.
Another common concern is that parents worry about sending their children without any friends to away camp.
"Parents think if they don't have a friend to send with their child, they shouldn't send them to away camp. That couldn't be more wrong," says Kiser. "The majority of kids do not come with friends, but leave with many who become friends for life and they come back year after year to be together."
"In reality, kids who come without friends are more apt to make friends right away as opposed to those who come with their friends already and often don't branch out."
And while summer camps will provide your children with exposure to new activities like windsurfing, boating, hiking and more, those are not the most important things they are getting from an overnight camp experience.
"Camp is the only place your child will be nurtured and safe in an independent environment, and come away with values that are instrumental as they go through life," Kiser says.
As Thompson gears up to send her youngest child for his first overnight camp experience this summer, she's confident it will be a positive experience and all three of her children will be eager to return year after year.
"In my opinion and experience, the biggest benefit of summer camp is that it helps kids become more independent," Thompson says. "When they go off to college, I hope I will rest easier knowing they've spent a couple of weeks away from home in the past and have experienced making new friends and living in a group setting."
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