Getting Help with Summer Camp Choices

Originally published January 4, 2018

While it’s hard to think about summer on a snow day (or maybe that’s exactly why we’re thinking about summer!), believe it not: NOW is when we need to start planning summer programs for the kids.  According to the nonprofit American Camp Association (ACA), 31 percent of camps start signing kids up as early as September through November of the previous year – and the most popular month for registration is January.  Some camps fill up fast and others offer early registration discounts.  This is why “camp fair season” – when camp directors travel around the country to exhibit their programs at regional camp fairs – typically runs from January through March.  Attending a camp fair offers families an opportunity to find the right program, save money, and make good decisions about what works best for their children.

The FREE Bucks Camp Expo is great chance for local families to engage in this experience.  It’s an established fair that has been running for almost 20 years!  It will be held on Saturday, January 20, 2018 from 12-3pm at Delaware Valley University (700 E. Butler Ave, Doylestown, PA 18901) in the Student Center Building.  Parents can learn about approximately 40-50 different camps, all under one roof.  As you stroll the aisles, speaking with camp representatives (and seeing how they interact with your children), examining the exhibits and picking up brochures, keep in mind your children’s needs for this and future summers.  Kids who might attend day camp now may grow into an overnight program next summer, and this is a great way to meet camps that you might want to visit at spring Open Houses or on summer family trips (if you’re considering an overnight camp in the future, visit it when camp is in session to really see the camp in action).

The Bucks Camp Expo is run by Ellen Warren who frequently writes about camps for regional parenting magazines and previously served as a consultant for the American Camp Association.  She understands that finding the right summer camp experience for your child can take time, so parents shouldn’t wait until the last minute to start their search.  She provided us with some great advice and talking points to bring with you to the expo.

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How to Choose a Summer Camp:

Youth development experts recommend that parents engage children in the camp selection process to help build excitement and allay any fears as the start of camp approaches.  Even young children enjoy watching videos of happy kids engaged in activities on camp websites or in camp brochures, and discussing what they might like to do at camp.  Keep discussions positive and focused on making new friends and trying new activities.  Tell children you can’t wait to hear about their special days at camp!

Older children may wish to pursue a special interest at a focused summer program, or conversely, take a summer break from lessons by attending a traditional camp with a diverse array of activities.  Many camps now blend traditional and specialty programs, offering children and teens the opportunity to try new things while still enjoying or practicing their favorite activities.  Some children attend one camp for the whole summer, while others may attend shorter sessions at multiple camps to accommodate their special interests or a family vacation.  More camps now offer some type of academic enrichment program that can be integrated as needed into the camp day as well.

Families should start their camp search by discussing their summer schedule and budget, as well as their children’s needs.  Will a day or overnight camp be right for your child?  How many weeks will your child attend?  Would your child thrive in a same gender or coed camp program?  Once you’ve narrowed down the basics, a variety of tools can help you find the perfect camp match for your family.

How to Find the Right Summer Camp:

Choosing a summer camp can often feel as overwhelming as choosing a college.  There are thousands of camps in the United States, and local communities typically offer a range of programs, from municipal parks and recreation programs to privately-owned and school day camps, to nonprofit and faith-based camps, to independent sport and performing arts camps.  To help find the right camp for your family, parents can turn to camp fairs (like the Bucks Camp Expo!), online search engines like the ACA’s Find-a-Camp tool, community websites, local newspapers and magazines, and referrals from family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

Camp directors welcome your questions at camp fairs, so take the time to ask important questions like these:

  1. What is the camp’s philosophy and program emphasis?

  2. What makes this camp unique?

  3. What is the camp director’s background?

  4. What is the counselor-to-camper ratio?

  5. What does a typical camp day include?

  6. Does the camp offer age-appropriate activities that can grow with your child?

  7. Do campers choose activities or move as a group?

  8. How are behavioral and disciplinary problems addressed?

  9. How does the camp handle special needs and dietary restrictions?

  10. How does the camp handle homesickness and other adjustment issues?

  11. What is the camp’s policy on cell phones and electronic games?

  12. Is medical staff present at camp?

  13. What experience, certifications, and training do counselors have or get?

  14. What percentage of campers return each year?

  15. What percentage of counselors return each year?

  16. Is the camp sanitized regularly with an approved cleaner to combat viruses?

  17. Can, or should, siblings and friends be in the same group? (Discuss pros and cons)

  18. For day camps, does the camp offer early drop-off and late pick-up?Extra fee?

  19. Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association (or other oversight organization)? Why or why not?

  20. What is included in the camp tuition? Snacks? Transportation? All activities? Is there a discount for early registration, siblings, or referrals?

When are Children Old Enough to Start Camp?

When choosing a camp, remember that children of different ages have different needs, and seek a program that is age-appropriate.  Many day camps offer dedicated camp programs for preschoolers, featuring a lower counselor to camper ratio, shorter hours, or more rest time built into the camp day.

Child psychologists suggest that children are ready for overnight camp at about ages 8-10 (although some camps offer programs from ages 6-7).  When kids start asking about “sleepaway” camp, you may wish to explore the tremendous range of camp options available today.  Prepare children for overnight camp with one or two night stays at friends’ and relatives’ homes first, so kids become accustomed to being away from home.  Some camps have short mini-camp overnight programs to introduce first-timers or young children to an overnight experience.

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Independent research conducted by ACA shows that camp is an experience that enriches lives and last a lifetime.  Summer camp helps children build critical life skills such as independence, cooperation, communication, leadership, conflict resolution, and more.  And with so many wonderful camp programs from which to choose, there is a camp for every child, every interest, and every budget.

And for more information about the Free Bucks Camp Expo on Saturday, January 20th, 2018: head to their website or Facebook page.  For questions, contact Ellen Warren at info@buckscampexpo.com.  You can call her at 215-886-1666 or on her cell at 215-669-0011.

Thanks Ellen for the great advice!