You may feel like the dust hasn't even begun to settle on the Christmas decorations in the attic, but it's time to start thinking about summer! Choosing the right summer camp for your child can be a daunting task, but summer camp can reap many rewards for both you and your child. Building friendships, developing interests and skills, experiencing new and exciting things and so much more—all of these things are benefits of summer camp.

There are tons of options out there—from free town-sponsored day camp programs, to full-fledged sleep-away camps. No matter what your limitations may be when it comes to budget, schedules, or interests, asking some simple questions and doing some quick research ahead of time can make choosing a camp a lot easier. But don’t stress-out too much; most of the things to keep in mind are based on common sense.

What’s Most Important?

Andrew Mishkin, Program Manager at the Riverview Foundation in Topsham, Maine, believes that a good staff is the most important thing to look for in a camp, no matter what type of camp it is. “Good staff can make rubbing two popsicle sticks together into a transformational event. Bad staff can make the greatest camp into a terrible experience.” You should definitely be happy and comfortable with the staff at the summer camp of your choice. They should be responsive to your questions and balance the child and parent's needs with the camp's needs, as well.

Mishkin also says to make sure that the staff is experienced. He says, “Camp counselors are often young, and their energy is an important component. However, there should be an older, experienced person or persons running the camp’s day-to-day operations. Most of the staff should be adults, with a few teens playing a supporting role.”

And don’t forget to keep your family budget in mind. Some initial research should help you to find town programs that will cost little to no money for your child to attend. If you already know of such a program, check it out again, as early as possible. Town budgets change and programs may be dropped. The number of children allowed into the programs may change from year to year as well.

Community Based Day Camps as an Option

Ashley Grady worked as a Youth Monitor for a summer camp program in the Village of Colonie in upstate New York. She recommends that parents “keep in mind their child’s interests and needs.” This may mean looking into town-sponsored programs, especially for the youngest children. A first experience at a day camp program might be best if its in their own community.

She says of the programs, “They are usually low in cost and very close to home. We would charge at most 75 cents for a craft,” she explained, and taking the kids to a local pool was free for the campers. If you don’t want to commit to a full week or summer, town-sponsored day camps are something to consider because they are low-pressure on the child. “You don't need to sign up,” explains Grady. “You can just show up.” That way if your child feels nervous about the experience, you don’t need to feel like you made the wrong decision for the entire summer. Moreover, town-sponsored camps meet the fundamental goal of camp. As Grady says, children can “do arts and crafts, play games, and interact with the other children.” Most importantly, they'll keep the learning up through the summer months while school's out. At community-based day camps, kids will still make friends, learn new skills, develop their interests, and experience new and exciting things they might experience at sleep-away camps too.

Specialized Camps

As children get older, they develop special talents, skills, goals, and interests. That’s where specialized camps can make a huge positive impact. Band camp, drama camp, math camp, soccer camp and the like are all great ways for children to meet others with similar skills and interests, while developing their own. Andrew Mishkin runs summer camp programs at the Riverview Foundation that specialize in martial arts. He says that specialized camps aren’t necessarily for the most talented or goal-oriented kids. “Specialized camp programs are also good for kids who don't have a clear talent, because it's a chance for them to discover one," he says. "It can be hard for children who don't yet know what direction they should take. A camp is a great place to concentrate on learning a new skill, and they'll go back to school with a new sense of their own talents.”

But not all specialized camps are created equal. Learning from experienced and talented people can be an important way to learn new skills, but Mishkin points out that the whole child must be considered. He says, “A specialized camp should not only teach a specific skills or create a specific opportunity—it should also create a good environment in other, more fundamental ways. Going away to basketball camp shouldn't just be about playing basketball—it should also be about building relationships, working in a team, and exploring other talents the child may have, basketball related or not. Specialized camps should still focus on the whole child.

Is Your Child Ready for Sleep-Away Camp?

It can be difficult to gauge whether or not your child is ready for a sleep-away camp, or if that's even an option you should consider for your child. Andrew Mishkin says, “It starts with knowing your kids. Some kids are comfortable sleeping away at an earlier age. Others…less so.” He recommends that a child who enjoyed at least three sleepovers in a row during the previous school year might be ready for a sleep-away experience. But ask the camp about their policies regarding campers who would rather leave the cabin behind for a summer at home. Find out if a full or partial refund is offered. Some day camps offer one or two overnight trips that may be optional. This is be a good way to test whether your child is ready for the sleep-away experience or not.

What to Ask

What are the basic questions a parent should ask when calling around to camps and visiting them? Here’s a checklist of questions to keep on the ready when you’re talking to the staff:

  1. “What is the ratio of counselors to children?” The more counselors, the more likely the campers will be organized and monitored by staff.
  2. “Is the staff CPR and first-aid certified?” Make sure there are certified staff members on hand.
  3. “What is a typical week of camp like?” The answer should be clear and focused, and of course, it should sound interesting to your child.
  4. “For an outdoor camp, what are the alternate arrangements or activities when it rains?” Be sure you are satisfied with the arrangements. Some summers can tend to be pretty rainy!
  5. “Are there any field trips?” This is important to know in terms of your work schedule and as a learning experience for your child.

Overall, it should be easy to communicate with camp staff, and they should listen to your needs as a parent. One of the best things you can do is talk to other parents. Networking and word-of mouth is an important way for people to find out the best camps in their area. Like anything else in life, you have to trust your instincts, and remember that even the best laid plans don't always work out. It’s an experience, so use what you learn this year to help you make an even better decision in the summers to come.