The Search for the Optimal Summer Camp

Learn to weed through your options and pick the best one for your kid

By Kelly F. Zimmerman


Years ago, Hannah Bloom’s mom gave her what some may call a simple parent hack for summer survival: kids should come home at the end of the day tired, happy and dirty.

Bloom, who has three kids ages 10 and under, has used this advice to guide her summer camp search throughout the years. Like many parents, she relies on summer camp during the weeks and months when school is out, and while her kids’ ages and interests have played a role in where she sends them for camp each year, her priority is a place that offers “good old-fashioned summer fun.”

Remaining fun-focused may seem like a simple mantra to follow, but with the number of camps available to choose from, the task may be quite daunting. Take your pick from the local park district or YMCA, science camps, arts camps, overnight camps, religious camps and the options are endless. Next factor in cost, hours and availability.

How does a parent even know where to start?

Whether you are seeking a camp that focuses on wholesome fun or a program that hones a specific skill, a camp that offers week-to-week flexibility or one that provides optimal coverage for working parents, there are some questions you may want to investigate before making your decision.

Here are just a few to get you started

Does the camp follow a play-based approach?

Bloom’s mom was definitely on to something. According to Denise Duval Tsioles, Ph.D. and licensed clinical social worker, any camp you pick should have an element of play tied to it — even the ones that have an academic- or skill-based focus.

“Play is really the way that children learn and grow and develop,” Duval Tsioles says, naming a number of skills that play helps to hone, from coordination to creativity. “It helps develop a child’s physical, emotional and social and cognitive skills, and camps can really provide a lot of that opportunity for play, whether it’s a specialized camp or a regular camp.”

If you’re worried about the summer slide that can result from the months out of school, Duval Tsioles says not to worry too much. It’s more important to provide kids with some freedom and opportunity to try things on their own.

“I think parents just get so worried that kids are going to lose something over the summer. But they really won’t,” she says. “You’re gaining a tremendous amount when you allow kids the opportunity to play.”

This play-based approach can apply to any type of camp, even ones that specialize in coding, music or any other type of activity.

Can the camp accommodate your child’s specific needs?

Going to camp can be an overwhelming experience for a child, no matter what type of camp they plan to attend. Therefore, Duval says, it’s important to consider your child’s temperament and ask the camp whether or not it has the proper supports — and staff — in place to accommodate them.

While certain generalized camps may receive funds to provide inclusion, support services or even one-on-one aides, there are circumstances where a specialized camp may be a better fit, says Colette Marquardt, executive director of the American Camp Association, Illinois.

For example, she says, camps that service kids with illnesses and disabilities may provide access to medical equipment and professionals that can support the campers throughout their day. Certain programs may even have adaptive equipment and activities like ropes courses and climbing walls, allowing kids to thrive in an environment that’s 100% catered around their needs.

There’s also the social-emotional benefit to these specialized camps.

“There’s a place in all of our camps for all of those children,” Marquardt says. “Most of those camps will make accommodations. But there’s a benefit in those specialized communities, especially for the campers to feel connected to other people who have shared experiences.”

If you are searching for a camp that services communities with disabilities or other medical or special needs, you may be able to find what you’re looking for in the American Camp Association national database. If your child requires specific accommodations from accredited staff of a certain degree, it may also be worth asking your pediatrician if they can make a recommendation for an organization that can help support those needs.

“Play is really the way that children learn and grow and develop. It helps develop a child’s physical, emotional and social and cognitive skills, and camps can really provide a lot of that opportunity for play, whether it’s a specialized camp or a regular camp.”

­— Denise Duval Tsioles

Has the camp established elements of safety and trust?

If you’re still lacking confidence in your camp choices, consider looking to the American Camp Association for guidance. Camps that are accredited through the association have met or exceeded particular thresholds, such as background checks, staff ratios and training, and even best practices around aquatics.

It’s also important to note: Accreditation is optional.

“Leaning towards and looking at accredited camps is definitely a benefit to families, because of the added steps,” Marquardt says. “Accreditation is a symbol that the camp is willing to go above and beyond what’s required of them.”

Even so, it’s reasonable to be apprehensive about dropping off your kids at a new camp for the first time, so some parents lean in to other resources they can trust to make the best decision: fellow parents.

Megan Knee typically gravitates toward enrichment-focused camps for her 6-year-old son. He’s gone to bike camp, STEM camp and a ninja warrior camp, but the common thread connecting all her decisions has been reputation. Rather than search for a particular credential, Knee checks to make sure the camp has good reviews or a good rapport with other families in her network.

“I only go for established camps,” she says. “If it was their first year and it was a dropoff (camp), I would be nervous.”

Which camp is best for your family this year?

Remember: Your camp choice this summer doesn’t have to be the choice for the rest of your child’s life. Over time, family schedules and childcare needs may change, as may your child’s interests or developmental needs.

For now, a happy dropoff and pickup may be enough for you and your kids — and that’s OK.

“When you’re a parent, this is what you want,” says Chrysa Toulis, a mom of two. “You want to see your child being happy, especially when they’re not with you 100% (of the time.) It’s good to see their smiling faces when you pick them up.”

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