Choosing a Summer Camp

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Young dancers perform at Camp Arena Stage in 2019. Courtesy: Camp Arena Stage

Every year Washington-area kids attend a variety of day and sleepaway camps. While the kids get to enjoy indoor and outdoor activities and meet new friends, their parents will have spent months researching and registering for the right environment for them. With the huge variety of summer camp offerings, picking the right one can seem like quite
a challenge.

Day Camp or Sleepaway Camp?

The first question is deciding between a sleepaway camp or day camp. Depending on age, maturity, and other factors, your child may or may not be ready to sleep away from home for days or weeks at a time. Most sleepaway camps offer a variety of timeframes, so you might consider starting with a shorter time away at first and expand to a fuller schedule as your child gets older. For older campers, summer camp can act as  practice being away from home in preparation for going to college. Many colleges and universities actually have pre-college programs so that high school students can attend classes and get an idea of what college will be like.

DC Sail Kids Set Sail Summer Camps are hosted at the Diamond Teague Park Piers. Courtesy of DC Sail

It’s Not All Fun and Games

Is there a skill your child has been wanting to work on? A new hobby he wants to explore? There are camps dedicated to sports, music, art, theater, survival skills, language immersion, cooking, dance, math, science, robotics, chess, and more. Other camps simply keep your child safe and entertained while you work. Younger campers usually do not need a lot of variety at camp: one camp that is geared toward their age group might be the right fit for the whole summer. Older campers might benefit from getting to try out several different interests and skills. All camps should be full of activities, including plenty of outdoor time and space, and caring, attentive counselors.

Camps for Special Needs

There are also camps that teach specific skills such as organizational skills and others that specifically support campers with special needs. Some campers will not be able to handle the demands of a summer camp that is geared toward typically developing kids, and parents should definitely keep that in mind. If you have a kid with a disability, summer can be a great opportunity to shore up some missing skills. There are occupational therapy camps, equine therapy programs, intensive social skills groups, interventions for specific learning disabilities such as dyslexia, and more. For camps geared toward typically developing kids, always be sure to disclose issues such as speech delays, anxiety, autism, and ADHD to the camp directors. They can work with the counselors to determine whether the camp can support your child’s needs. The most important thing is for each camper to be fully supported and have fun.

Location, Location, Location

For a sleepaway camp, can you get your camper to and from camp relatively easily? Do not forget to factor in transportation as you are putting together your camp budget.  For day camps, are they convenient to your home and/or work? Can you conveniently use public transit and/or car dropoff? Can you drop off and get to work on time and be able to pick up by the camp’s ending time? Are the dropoff and pickup procedures smooth so that you can get in and out quickly?

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

Money, Money, Money

Registering early can help you get discounts. At the very least, you can stretch the payments over time between the deposits, any partial payments, and final payments. If you do not have an unlimited camp budget, consider mixing less expensive camps or grandparent coverage with more pricey options. Registering early also gives you the opportunity to take advantage of some of those lower cost camps, such as those run by public entities, that are likely to fill up as the registration season goes on. Most parents start to register for camp around January, so be aware of that in your planning. Be sure to ask for any discounts that are available such as early bird specials and discounts for siblings and/or multiple weeks. If you have a somewhat flexible work schedule, you might be able to save money by doing partial day and/or partial week camps rather than covering every day, all day.

The Details

Busy Bees Camps co-director Tarsha Burns notes that parents most frequently ask questions about daily outings, group sizes and the age range for each group, and the ratio of adults to students. Making sure that such parameters are in line with what you and your child need is important. While it is fine to have teenage helpers, generally a camp should have at least one adult with each small group. A camp director onsite to handle any crisis that might arise, deal with parent questions, and monitor the counselors is also helpful. Be sure to check how the camp handles allergies and special needs if that is pertinent to your child’s situation. Lastly, inquire as to camp emergency procedures. Are their systems in place, including in the case of a positive Covid test? No camp can prepare for every eventuality, but you should have the sense that the leaders have thought through several possibilities.

Children create projects at the Smithsonian Adventure Camp. Courtesy:
Smithsonian Institute

Making the Final Decision

At camps such as Polite Piggy’s, camp directors spend months planning summer programming with kids, as director VanNessa Duckett puts it, “at the center of it all.” With so many wonderful options available, it is no wonder that parents can find the task of choosing a camp or camps daunting. Putting together a worksheet of pros and cons can help in making a final decision. Use the camps’ FAQs on their websites to answer most questions and then reach out to the camp if you have additional questions. Do be aware that many summer camp administrators have other employment during the school year, so be understanding if it takes a couple of days for them to respond to your questions or registration.  Do not stress out if you are not sure that you have found the perfect camp. There are plenty of summers to fill and some camps will be a better fit than others.

E.V. Downey is an educational consultant based on Capitol Hill. In addition to helping families navigate the school system, she is co-director of Busy Bees Camps. She also teaches flute at Music on the Hill and tutors elementary and middle school students.