Picking the right summer camp for your kids

We had been driving for two hours along backcountry roads we'd never been down before, and although we'd only gone 100 miles, the distance from our house to where Samantha, then 11, was going to spend the next two weeks at her first-ever sleep-away summer camp was growing greater and greater, in more ways than one.

She was headed to a new "big girl" world where her mom and dad, for the first time in her life, would not be a few rooms down the hall or a phone call away. This was all new to both of us, and we fell into a rare silence as her newly acquired footlocker, packed with what we hoped would be enough gear for two weeks, rattled in the trunk.

My wife, who was away on a business trip, and I never got to visit the camp in person before signing up Samantha three months earlier. We were convinced from a colorful brochure picked up at a camp fair and a subsequent Web site full of giddy testimonials that this general adventure camp for girls would be suitable for Samantha, who agreed to give it a try. But we had no idea, really, what the place would look like or who would be running it. As I drove, my parenting antenna was at full power for the slightest indication that something would be amiss, in which case we'd abandon the deal without hesitation.

Now it came time to make the turn off the highway and onto the farm-to-market road that led to the camp entrance. At the intersection was a dilapidated farmhouse with some scrawny chickens running around behind a wire fence and a netless basketball rim hanging from a rusted backboard on an unpaved driveway.

I slowed the car to double-check the directions. Samantha -- my brave Sammy who trusts me with her life, security and comfort every minute of every day -- gazed at the dusty yard and ramshackle house to our right and, thinking we were turning in, commented, "Well, at least they have a basketball court."

What? Wait.

She thought THIS was the camp!

I tried but couldn't stop from busting out a laugh.

"Samantha," I said, speeding the car up again, "we have another 10 miles to go. This is somebody's house."

It was impossible to tell if she was embarrassed by her mistake, because relief overtook her body as she exhaled for the ages. All the fears about the sight-unseen camp we'd been holding in for the months since sending in our deposit went right out the window, and new joy replaced it.

In a few minutes, we were pulling through the gates of the lushly appointed camp, with horses grazing in a nearby pasture, youthful counselors happily directing incoming traffic and dozens of young girls playing games in a meadow in the distance.

And there were basketball courts, and the rims had nets.

Why send your kid to camp?

We got lucky with Samantha's sleep-away camp, but finding the right summer activity for your kid, whether a sleep-away camp or a day camp or class, is a conundrum faced every spring by many parents.

Personally, I still have questions. What's the right age for sending a kid to a residential camp? How do you know what type of camp -- academic, sports, adventure, music -- is best for your child?

We asked Danielle Shaw, executive director of the Texoma Section of the American Camp Association, a national organization that accredits camps (, to make us feel better about sending Samantha to a camp sight-unseen.

"Any kind of camp experience gives them the opportunity to be part of a community, to learn to be self-motivated and make decisions," Shaw says.

Here are some pointers to give you peace of mind:

Why send a kid to camp in the first place? "Camp is obviously more than a day-care selection," Shaw says. "When they choose camp, they're choosing an experience that goes way beyond sitting at home watching TV. You're talking about kids getting out and doing human-powered activities and interacting with a community and learning how to work together. They're trying different things, like shooting a bow for the first time or getting on a horse and seeing what that feels like. There are challenge courses and river rafting and so many different opportunities."

What are the benefits of an outdoor camp? "Kids are suffering from 'nature-deficit disorder,' a shrinking childhood," she says, quoting Richard Louv's seminal book Last Child in the Woods, a look at contemporary childhood culture. "They have less space to be outside, less time in a day because they're doing so many other activities. It's a real issue with kids, getting that connection to nature and, sometimes, authentic relationships because they spend so much time in front of a TV or computer. Camp gives you that experience."

Shaw says she comes across "kids who have never seen a real open space -- trees and grass growing wild. I'm always dumbfounded when I meet a kid who has never seen anything besides the yard behind their house."

With so many things for kids to do at camps -- music, golf, swimming, art -- how do I get this life? "We all wonder that," Shaw says with a laugh. "And there are a number of camps that are capitalizing on that question. There's one in Wimberley -- Rocky River Ranch, an all-girls camp -- where the moms were saying how much fun their daughters were having every year, and now they're doing women's weekends for moms to go to camp." (Just for Women: Great Escape Weekends include spa activities, flea-market shopping and bunkhouse lodging,

Choosing the right day camp

Before Samantha was ready for "residential" -- sleep-away -- camp, she sampled day camps not far from our house. The hours were right, the cost was affordable, and for two weeks at a time, she had adventures and made new friends. The camps served a crucial purpose for me -- it kept her out from underfoot during summer vacation -- and helped her enjoy her downtime to the maximum.

Here are some tips for choosing a day camp that will give your child something to write about when it comes time to do the "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" essay.

Agree on what type of camp. Your child should have input on how she is going to spend her summer months, so freely encourage her to contribute to the conversation. You may be surprised to learn that a drama camp beats out one with little more than a swimming pool.

Shop for camps. Guides such as this one are a good place to start; check online resources such as and

Talk to neighbors. Find out where your child's friends go; for younger kids, it may be helpful if they already know at least one other kid at the camp.

Visit. If the timing's right, drop by the facility and see what's going on. Are the kids safe? Having fun? Is there a selection of things for them to do? Is the camp accredited by a professional organization? Ask for references before signing up.

Staff. The rule of thumb is one counselor for every eight to 10 campers over age 9 and five to eight younger than 9.

Location. Since this is a day camp and not day care -- there's a big difference -- you may have to travel out of your usual orbit to pick up and drop off. Drive the route during your usual commute times to make sure the camp's location will work for you.