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It’s not too early to start planning for summer camp

If you are looking for creative ways to get more bang for your summer camp buck and think you may have the next Pele´ or Pearlman on your hands, you might be considering a specialty camp.

While a specialty camp can be a practical way for a child to build skills in a discipline they enjoy, and could be a potential investment toward college or an eventual career, there are important factors to consider in choosing the right camp.

Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the Illinois chapter of the American Camp Association, a national camp accreditation organization, warns parents that the possibility of burnout is very real at a specialty camp. While recreational activities are a part of the day, children will spend the majority of their time focused on a single type of activity.

Kaplan counsels parents that the best thing they can do when considering a specialty camp is to “do some serious thinking” about who really wants the camp, the parents or the child.

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“An area where there is a potential danger for parents is to not be clear of a child’s desire,” says Kaplan. He recommends contacting the camp to arrange a visit without your children and discourages sending a child to a camp that forbids an off-season visit.

While at the camp, talk to the director about the camp’s philosophy, the level of proficiency your child should have to attend and ask for references. When you call the references, Kaplan recommends asking them to refer you to other local families who have sent their children to the camp. This is a good way to hear a more objective take on the camp and learn about another child’s experience. It is also a good idea to ask about the camp director’s education and training and what they look for when hiring camp staff.

Specialty camps come in all shapes, sizes and disciplines. Almost all offer traditional camp recreational activities in addition to the main activity. Some have a competitive admissions process, but most do not.

A glimpse into the future?

As college admissions become more competitive and a degree more valuable, parents may see camp as a way to get a head start on college preparation and camps have responded to this.

iD Tech Camps, for instance, are held on the campuses of major universities, including Northwestern, Purdue and Lake Forest College, to give students early exposure to college. Students live in the dorms and eat in the cafeteria. Camps are a week long and many campuses offer a bridge weekend program for campers who want to attend two camps back-to-back.

The camp “takes kids’ hobbies and passions and has them use professional, cutting-edge technology to see how they could turn that hobby into a degree or career,” according to Karen Thurm Safran, iD Tech Camp’s vice president of marketing. Each camper enrolls in a course that interests them, such as computer game design, programming or 3-D modeling, and leaves with a completed project, such as a Web site, video game or even an iPhone application.

Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., hosts the Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts. Founded 56 years ago by sisters Sulie and Pearl Harand and Pearl’s husband, Harand Camp was the first performing arts camp to bring together singing, dancing and acting. Campers learn every aspect of theatrical production, from running lights back stage to singing a solo in the spotlight. The camp is non-competitive, and, in the final production of the summer, all leads are split to give each camper an opportunity to be both a lead and a chorus member.

According to Sulie Harand, who began her career performing one-woman musical theater shows, “this gives them the ability to live with other people and not feel someone else has to fail for them to succeed.” While the camp’s alumni are a veritable who’s who of Hollywood and Broadway, Harand says the camp is “concerned with each child’s personality and development” and building self-confidence is the main priority.

Don’t overlook local opportunities

With the current economic woes far from over, many parents are looking for creative and cost-effective options for summer camp.

For children who may not be ready for an intensive, multi-week camp with a singular focus, local opportunities abound that provide more in-depth exposure to an art or sport. For example, the Skokie Park District offers a wide variety of specialty day camps, from soccer to art, even a circus camp.

Michelle Tuft, the district’s superintendent of recreation, says parents with children in schools that have eliminated arts and music find the summer camps “a great opportunity (for their kids) to spend all day focused on something they want to do, and expand their horizons beyond what they get in school.”

Parents looking for all-day options can check out the Chicago Park District and Metro Chicago YMCA.

The Chicago Park District offers summer camps at 190 parks. Campers can enjoy swimming, sports, arts and crafts, field trips and cultural activities. Individual park offerings and fees will be available online beginning April 6 and online registration opens April 20.

A list of camp descriptions is available online. In addition to day camp, a variety of specialty camps are offered, including Babysitters Camp, Karate Boot Camp and Summer in the City.

The Metro Chicago YMCA also offers all-day camps from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. from early June and through late August. YMCA day camps integrate the Y’s healthy kids curriculum, which includes workshops on healthy living with doctors, nutritionists and local athletes. Parents can contact their local YMCA for more information and to register online. Suburban park districts and YMCAs offer a myriad of different summer camps. Contact those closest to you to see what they offer that interests your child.

Kids interested in nature might enjoy day camp at either the Morton Arboretum or Chicago Botanic Garden. The Chicago Botanic Garden offers eight weeks of half- and all-day camps for ages 2-12. Visit the Web site for more information. The Morton Arboretum offers summer science camps for ages 4-14. Online registration for the Morton Arboretum begins this month here.

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