With spring break in the rearview mirror for most families, it's time to start planning for summer.
If you are considering sending your child to camp for the first time, or even the second, the choices available can be quite daunting. I jumped this parenting hurdle last summer with my then-7-year-old daughter, Abigail. She came home from school one day with a backpack full of fliers and a long verbal list of where "everyone" was going. So I did what any parent in this perplexing situation would do. I turned to the experts in the field: other parents. I talked with several moms about their favorite summer camps and how they chose them.
Their advice helped us narrow dozens of choices to the perfect one. Here are some general tips, garnered from real-life moms who helped me.
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How much does the camp cost? For many families this is the deciding factor. Sticking with what is affordable for your own budget is a no-brainer, but be sure that you are figuring in the total cost, including extra fees and the expenses you'll incur for supplies. Looking for discounts and scholarships ahead of time might make a pricier camp affordable. Renting gear instead of purchasing is a great way to save.
Holly Shipman, mom of Ben, 11: "We have rented gear from TCU before, when my husband was a student. It was nice to rent and not to actually own the stuff." (Note: TCU equipment rental is available only to faculty, staff and students. More information: www.campusrec.tcu.edu/outdoor/rentals.html.)
How long does the camp last? Is it a day camp, or will your child stay overnight? If your child has stayed overnight away from home and parents, he or she may be ready for overnight camp. If this is the first time away, day camp may be a better choice.
Shana Hazzard, mom of Callie, 8: "I asked Callie if she would like to go to an overnight camp and she said yes. She has spent the night with friends and family and never had any problems with homesickness. She has a naturally outgoing, independent and confident personality. Also, she will have friends there that she already knows as well."
Wendy Blanton, mom of Kate. 10: "We decided she wasn't ready because any summer vacation that we take begins to go south if we push it longer than four nights. It's just too long for Kate to be away from home."
Shipman: "We consulted with Ben's second-grade teacher, and she agreed that he was ready. Ben really wanted to go. This year will be his fourth year to go to the same camp. We are debating sending him for four weeks this summer."
Where is your camp? Consider how long it will take to get there and back and whether flying will be cheaper than driving. Are friends or family members nearby in case of an emergency? Remember that crossing some state lines will bring you into a whole new time zone, as well as different weather.
Blanton: "Because Camp Thurman [in Arlington] is a 25-minute drive from central Fort Worth, we try to pick weeks that our friends are attending and carpool with them. Even if we can't find a car pool, the fact that it runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. makes the 50-minute round-trip doable."
Shipman: "It's a bonus for us that the camp is in Michigan. Since the weather is cooler in the summer, they are comfortable outside all the time. It's kind of a pain to travel that far, but we've made it work. We are able to send him letters via e-mail that are printed and hand-delivered to him. We might get one letter from him if we're lucky, but he's having fun."
Health and special needs
There are a number of camps geared toward children with special needs, and many offer alternatives for children with asthma, allergies, special diets and heat sensitivity.
Susan Pressley, mom of Mia, 8: "In choosing a camp for Mia, I consider whether it's outside or inside because she is sensitive to the heat."
Blanton: "One of the biggest factors for me is choosing a camp that keeps my kids active during the hot Texas summers. Although it is outdoors, Camp Thurman has been at the top of our list every summer. The staff makes an effort to keep the kids hydrated and sun-blocked, and the day includes two swims. The kids stay in their swimsuits, so they are wet long after they get out of the pool."
Whether or not the camp you choose has a religious affiliation, you will want to look at the camp's values to make sure they align with your own. What is your child expected to get out of this camp? How does it handle discipline? How diverse is the group? You need to be able to trust the adults caring for your child.
Hazzard: "We chose this camp because it is affiliated with our church, is run by the college that I attended and has a good reputation. We trust the organization running the camp, and we feel comfortable that the other families sending their children there share our values."
What does your child enjoy doing? Most kids have a wide range of hobbies, so it may be harder than you think to narrow it to something your child wants to do every day for a week (or more). Instead of one weeklong camp, look for two shorter camps that focus on different activities. And who knows? Kids might even develop new interests and hobbies during their time away.
Shipman: "The main thing that we wanted in a camp was for it to be a true summer camp like we remembered as kids. That includes funny skits, pranks, outdoor sports, campfire songs and lots of fun. We were surprised that one of his favorite sports at camp is fencing."