How to Choose a Summer Camp

Registration for sessions begins in February

Students pose at a Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) camp at Friendship Heights Recreation Center. DPR camps focus on building soft skills and exposing children to life-long leisure activities. Image courtesy: DPR

Summer camp is a time to build memories – a place for kids to wile away the summer hours but also a time to develop new interests and skills. Camp professionals are teachers and mentors who influence, advocate, shape and protect their campers.

“Not only do camp programs help families with childcare needs in summer,” said DC Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) Seasonal Programs Manager Vanessa Gerideau, “our goal is also to provide the child with benefits of social interaction, emotional development, physical activity and an introduction to leisure activities that could really have an impact on their childhood.”

But from all the summer camp options available in and around the District, how do you pick a summer camp that’s right for your child?

The American Camp Association (ACA, provides resources for parents to help them through the decision-making process. There are many factors to consider together with your child’s individual interests and comfort. Safety, camp philosophy, staff and training, camp location and cost are all important factors.

Overnight or Day
You and your child will determine if they are ready for overnight camps, which generally take campers beginning at around seven years of age, or if a day camp is better suited to your needs or their level of comfort with being away from the family. In the District, day camps are offered for campers as young as three or four years old by DPR, DC Adventure Camps, Busy Bees Music and Arts Camps, Headfirst Summer Camps and others.

Gerideau says that day camp should probably not be a child’s first experience being with a group of children. She says although the DPR day camps have accommodated such needs before, it is probably wise to have children experience playgroups or a half-day session of structured activity before committing them to a two-week day camp.

The ACA says it is advisable, though not necessary, for a camper to have participated in a day camp before committing to overnight camp for a session of a week or longer. Although every child is different, a spokesperson suggests that a camper can be prepared for the separation of overnight camp by sending them for sleepovers at grandma’s house, or with a trusted friend. “Positive overnight experiences away from home prepare a child for the joys of overnight camp,” he said.

If your child requires a lot of persuasion to get excited about camp, then perhaps a day camp is better suited to their needs at this stage. Only you and your child can make that decision.

Once you have decided on day camp versus overnight camp, there are factors to consider in selecting one, including a child’s interests, scheduling, location, length of camp session and budget. Many specialty camps offer a particular focus, such as art, baseball or aquatics. If you can find the right program, choosing a camp that matches your child’s interests will g a long way to holding their attention and keep them happy throughout the camping period.

Both parents and professionals say that it is important to look for a balance between structured and unstructured activities. “Unstructured activities give kids a chance to develop soft skills such as conflict resolution, communication and self-control in a safe, healthy environment,” says Gerideau. “At the same time, a lack of structure will lead to boredom.”

Last year, Capitol Hill resident Carolyn Bowen put her two children aged three and five into summer day camps. For her older son, she chose Home Run Baseball Camp. The camp has several locations in the District, including Friendship Heights Recreation Center and Payne Elementary School. Bowen said baseball activities held her son’s interest, but the camp also did a great job of allowing for free play and more unstructured activities, such as running through sprinklers. “It reminded me of more unstructured time, like when we were kids,” she said.

That said, the ACA notes that if families are not finding what they are looking for in terms of specialties, camp is also a great place to try something new. An ACA Youth Outcomes Study found that 74% of campers said they did things they were afraid to do at first while they were at camp, and 63% of parents say that their child continues to participate in some of the new activities he or she learned at camp after they leave.

Sending your child to a camp where one of his or her friends is attending can also help make the experience a good one. Carolyn Bowen says that this influenced the decision she made for her son when she sent him to baseball camp. “[Having a friend in the same camp] just made him feel more comfortable,” she said. Some camps, such as Headfirst Camps, allow parents to register to be placed in a camp group with a buddy attending the same session.

Cost is, for most, another important consideration when choosing a camp. Camps in the District and area range from DPR day camps at $5-$150 per week to thousands of dollars per session for overnight specialty camps. In addition to the cost of tuition, be aware of the potential for additional costs for things like transportation and aftercare costs, t-shirts, photographs, supplies, and additional medical insurance where required.

As you narrow in on potential camp choices, it is advisable to check if they are ACA accredited. ACA’s accreditation process is an independent safety audit evaluating up to 300 standards of camp management and programming, including the site, food safety, health care, transportation, management, staffing and program elements such as water safety.

It is also a good idea to reach out to the camp staff, especially the Camp Director. You will want to know about the ages and training of the counsellors, and if a particular person will be assigned to your child through their session, or if they will move between leaders. Ask who you can contact if you have concerns during the camp session.

Resources for Finding the Right Camp
With all the options available for kids in the DMV, beginning the search for the right camp can be daunting. Fortunately, there are a few ways to get an overview of potential camps. The ACA provides a camps database, with camps organized by geographic location, day or overnight and with accreditation.

There is also the J.O. Wilson Elementary School Annual DC Summer Camps Fair, scheduled for J.O. Wilson Elementary (666 K St. NE) Thursday January 25th from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The fair was started as an information session three years ago by Larry Gill, but has evolved into something much bigger. The event offers one-stop shopping for possible camp experiences, as well as a chance to meet camp representatives and ask questions. It is the only event of its kind in the District. More than 300 parents attended last year.

“We are trying to expose parents to quality camps that they don’t know are available locally,” Gill said. “We had about 40 camps attend last year.” That list includes day and overnight camps from all over the District, Maryland and Virginia with a variety of specialties.

“We try to get a variety representing different cost categories –last year, there were some that were free—and options from cooking to specialty sports and sailing,” he said.

Bowen has attended the fair herself. “It’s nice for someone else to do all that work, and put it in one place,” she said. “Especially since the fair makes it very clear which age is accommodated.”

Given all there is to consider when choosing a camp for your child, the process can seem overwhelming. It doesn’t have to be. It can be an exciting new experience for both you and your child. Bowen says parents shouldn’t panic if the camps they want fill up, as some are flexible and can add counselors and spaces. But she encourages parents to get started in the New Year.

“You’re going to want to start planning early if you want one of those specialty camps. It seems crazy, but do it,” she said.