In the beginning, there was Vacation Bible School.
Then, almost 50 years ago, came Museum School. And parents saw that it was good.
Today, there's an almost unimaginable variety of summer day camps, from baseball to sculpting to guitar to zoology - as well as the traditional summer fare of horseback riding, marshmallow roasting and braiding plastic lanyards.
The number of day camps in the U.S. has grown by nearly 90 percent in the last two decades, according to the American Camp Association. And kids aren't just attending one day camp. The trend is to fill up the summer with them.
Working parents need someplace to send their kids.
"Parents are also a bit more protective. They're a little concerned about letting their child go away from home," says Ann Sheets, a vice president with Camp Fire USA's First Texas Council, and the immediate past president of the American Camp Association. "Day camp is a first step for younger campers."
The growth of day camps hasn't come at the expense of resident camps, however. "It's not the same kind of kids," says Rachel Carrigan, program director at Camp Carter YMCA, which runs both day and resident camps. "The resident-camp kid is obviously ready to get out of the house, ready to have that overnight experience. They tend to be more independent."
So then, how to pick a day or resident camp? Start by asking questions. Here are some common ones:
What's the camp's philosophy? "How well does it suit your child's needs and personality?" asks Sheets. "It's important for the child to have input as well, so they're going where they want to go, not just where they're being sent."
What will my child do every day? Will they be outdoors and active, or indoors making crafts and playing games? Will there be field trips?
What if it rains? If it's an outdoor camp, is there shelter? Will the indoor activities be interesting?
Is there a vacation policy? If you sign up for a summer's worth of camp, can you take a couple of weeks off for a family vacation without having to pay?
Is the camp licensed or accredited? If it's an all-day, all-week camp, it should be licensed by the state health department. Also ask if the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association. It's a voluntary program, but it means the camp has met certain standards. (Find out more at the ACA Web site, www.campparents.org)
How many counselors are there? For traditional day camps, the ACA recommends that, for campers ages 4-5, there should be one counselor for every six children. For ages 6-8, the ratio should be 1:8. For ages 9-14, the ratio should be 1:10, and for ages 15-18, the ratio should be 1:12.
What about health care? Is there a first-aid worker on site? What happens if your child is injured? Inform the camp director about any special medical needs your child has.
Can I apply for financial aid? Yikes, a summer's worth of camp can get expensive. Many camps offer scholarships, as well as discounts for enrolling multiple kids from one family, or registering early.
Finally, visit the camp if you can. If you can't visit, get references from other parents. Let your kids talk to other kids who have attended the camp.
Above all, don't be overwhelmed by the number of camps to choose from, or by the challenge of getting your kid off the couch this summer. It's worth it. As Sheets says, "Kids can discover there's a whole world out there that doesn't require electricity."