The first summer I enrolled my son in a day camp -- vacation Bible school (or VBS, as it's better known) -- I felt panicked. In surveying the scene while dropping off my 4-year-old, I saw the potential for disaster everywhere: bee stings, sunburns, sugary snacks and teenage volunteers in leadership roles. In spite of my first-time-mom paranoia, disaster did not strike at VBS. In fact, what struck was something of a revelation. At the end of five days of singing, arts and crafts, outdoor games, and stories, camp had reduced my son to big, exhausted sobs -- not because anything went wrong, but because it was over until the next year.
Summer camps are a logistical necessity to many a working parent, but for kids, camp can be something to look forward to all year -- a chance to build skills, friendships and confidence, often with a good measure of fresh air. Even in families with a stay-at-home parent, summer day camps offer many compelling reasons to roll out of bed early and join up.
"It's the opportunity for children to socialize and make new friends in community environments, to learn new skills, and to grow and develop as individuals," says Dani Shaw, the Texoma field office executive for the American Camp Association (ACA; www.acacamps.org), which accredits some of the larger summer camps, holding them to 300 health and safety standards. "The community environment helps them learn service to others and respect. Each camp has its own unique offering that makes it different."
Between Shaw's professional perspective and advice from a few area parents, here are six steps to finding the best summer day camp for your child.
1. Consider the familiar. Many schools, places of worship, workout facilities and community centers offer day camps in settings already familiar to your child. If the camp venue is in your weekly circuit, chances are very good that your children will know some of the other campers and staffers, too. "We usually do camps through our fitness center," says Amy Tichenor, a Southlake mother of three school-age kids. "Kids like the rock climbing and swimming one. We also do camps through the city of Southlake Park and Recreation program. They have sports camps, painting, nature, Legos and cooking. They're not very expensive, and the kids enjoy them." A familiar setting can provide the home-team advantage for a shy or reluctant camper, in particular.
2. Solicit advice from other parents. Standing around during soccer practice or school pickup? Talk to other parents. Not only are word-of-mouth recommendations totally candid, but they will lead you to choices that your child's classmates or teammates are participating in, which means built-in friends for your child and potential car-pool opportunities, too. If you don't know anyone else interested in the camp you are considering, ask the director for parents' references so you can get feedback from people who have tried it.
3. Weigh the practical aspects, but look beyond convenience. Sure, an agreeable location, time frame and fee can be compelling a reason to choose a day camp -- for you. But consider your child's experience: Sometimes convenience is outweighed by awesomeness. "Camp Thurman in Arlington rocks! Well, only if your child doesn't mind getting dirty," says Molly Kanthack, a Fort Worth mom whose oldest child participates in a variety of camps, blazing the trail for two younger siblings. "It is fantastic, very organized. The drive is a bit of a beating [for me], but I recommend carpooling."
When your child has untapped talents or passions, summer day camps are the perfect time to try something there hasn't been time for during the school year. Whether it's horseback riding, music, sports or science -- there's a camp for it. TCU's Extended Education department (www.lifelong.tcu.edu), the Fort Worth Zoo (www.fortworthzoo.org) and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History (www.fwmuseum.org) host summer camp sessions devoted to a variety of specific interests. "Van Grow (www.vangrowstudio.com) also has a great camp that starts at age 4," says Kanthack. "They do ceramics, clay work, drawing and painting."
If day camp seems prohibitive for the family budget, consider that larger nonprofit camps, like Camp Fire USA (www.campfirefw.org) and YMCA (www.campcarter.org), offer need-based scholarships to some campers each year. Sending more than one kid? Ask about sibling discounts.
4. Safety first. Some parents have been surprised by loose pickup or drop-off practices at camps, while others haven't been thrilled with young group leaders who seem less than ready for leadership. Before signing up your child for a new camp, find out which procedures and policies are in place to protect your child -- and if the staff has undergone background checks and thorough training. These are among the many points that the ACA reviews when accrediting camps, but for smaller programs, you will need to be your child's advocate. "Parents want to interview camp directors in person or over the phone, asking questions related to how they hire, do background checks and train their staff," Shaw says. "And how the camp handles homesickness, discipline and emergency procedures."
5. Make it a family decision. Although ultimately parents have to make the decision about which camp is the best fit, it's helpful to talk with your children about how they want to spend their summer and to consider their input. "Children are more successful in programs when they've had a hand in the decision-making process," Shaw says. "As they're older, there's more involvement." She adds that when the child has helped choose their summer activities, it builds excitement and interest as well as helping him or her to avoid feeling homesick. (With younger kids, it can happen even in day camp.)
6. Listen to the child's feedback, and be flexible. Even when you have signed your child up for a camp that seems to be the perfect fit, it's possible that you will hear some unfavorable feedback midsession. Shaw advises that you be willing to listen and take any concerns seriously, making alternative arrangements for future weeks, if necessary. Communicating with the camp leadership can help, and sometimes it is as simple as being positive. "Kids build a lot on how parents feel about it," Shaw says. "Not every camp will work for every child, but there is a camp for every child."