Summer Camp Sign-Up, 101

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Signed up your kids for summer camp yet? If not, you’re probably not alone.

I, for one, typically operate on a day-to-day, fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants mode. Panic sets in when I have to schedule a week, or even a few days, in advance. So when billboards around town, brochures in the mail box, and emails in my in-box began to bombard me with reminders about summer camp—at least three whole months away—I initially tried to shut them out.

But, realizing this would only result in my kids getting shut out (desirable camp slots fill-up quickly), I finally relented, scrambling to find some suitable scheduled activities to fill my kids’ otherwise unscheduled summers. Seems sort of counter-intuitive, right? But that’s another subject, for a different day. For now, we’re sticking to the topic of summer camps or, more precisely, how to pick them.

I may not be forward thinking when it comes to summer camp, but I have a good memory of what’s worked in past summers for my kids—and which mistakes I hope to avoid in the future. So when you’re sorting through the dizzying array of summer camps out there, these tips may help you decide which options are right for your kids.

Avoid procrastinating. Much like summer beach rentals, many if not all slots in prime camps get filled by February or March. So, even if you have a tough time wrapping your head around a seemingly simple child experience that will not happen for months, remember: it behooves you to focus now.

Make camp work for the whole family. Sure, you want your child to have an awesome camp experience. But it’s got to work for the whole family. Case in point: When my kids were younger and I worked at home, it made no sense for me to stagger the camps they attended so that one child was home with me one week, the other the next—as that would have meant two straight weeks where I wouldn’t get any work done. I chose camps they could attend simultaneously—not easy as my kids are different genders and ages. Though it took more leg work on the front end, it usually proved worthwhile.

Don’t succumb to mob mentality. Signing up your kid for whatever a bunch of his best buddies are doing might seem like the surest bet. Then again, it might not be. For instance, a sleepover soccer camp with your son’s teammates sounds like a blast. But if he tends to dehydrate or fatigue easily in hot weather, playing soccer all day on hot turf in potentially 100 degree weather for several consecutive days may not be the best idea. (Hint: If this kind of camp is up his or her alley, check with the local colleges as some of them offer decent overnight sports camps.)

Do your research.  A glossy brochure or even a video on a website can make any camp look amazing. But they can’t give you the inside scoop. You want answers to questions like: What are the counselors like? Are the activities age-appropriate? If it’s an activity-specific camp (like art or music or swimming), how much time is spent honing that skill, and what do campers do the rest of the time? Is it safe, clean, well-run? How many return visitors do they have? Is the price in line with other similar camps? What’s the staff-to-camper ratio? An above-board camp should have no qualms answering these questions. It’s also a good idea, whenever possible, to ask families who’ve been there before what they thought.

Be wary of the buddy system. To attend camp with a friend or not to? This decision can be a crap shoot. I’ll never forget driving to camp daughter and a little girl that we—my daughter and me, that is—thought was her friend. “I hope some of my friends are going to this camp,” the little girl exclaimed from the back seat. I almost wrecked the car. On the flip side, had my daughter chosen to attend a camp with someone who really was her friend, they may have clung to each other all week and not made any new ones. So, if one of your goals in sending your kid to camp is to open her up to a new experience, including new friends, think twice before signing her up with a buddy.

Consider what’s close to home. If you want to keep it simple this summer, you’ve got lots of options in your own community. Most, if not all, the independent schools offer summer camp programs, from academics to sports and beyond. Recreation councils and local colleges sometimes sponsor summer camps for kids. Do a little digging, and you may come up with something that’s practically in your backyard.

Lean on professional help if you’re overwhelmed. Researching summer camps for kids can become a full-time job, if you let it. But assistance is available. Local family resource magazine Baltimore’s Child hosts a summer camp fair March 10 at Timonium’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. Find out more here. The website Tips on Trips and Camps promises virtual support on sleep-away camps. And Student Summers, a free advisory service, also doles out advice on  summer camp opportunities for kids. Lanie Yerman is the local consultant for this service, and can be reached at [email protected] or 443-790-9851.

Have any of your own tips, true stories, or nightmares you’d like to share on the summer camp front? Tell us in the comment section.

Check out the below camps when making your summer plans. Click on the logos to visit the camps’ websites.

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