How to Choose a Summer Camp

Summer camp can improve a child’s well-being, says April Nelson, founder of Adventures on the Hill. Courtesy: Adventures on the Hill.

Liz Lyons has been signing her kids up for summer camp for nine years now. She did it because of her own positive experiences with camps when she grew up in California, she said. But she is also up front about the pragmatic reasons. “As soon as your children get out of daycare, you have to start looking at summer camps,” she said. “You have a whole summer that you need to fill.”

But how do you choose the best camp for your child? There are so many options available in the District and surrounding area, from day camps that offer a plethora of activities to specialty camps focused on everything from science to Shakespeare. And then there are overnight camps, which themselves offer a full range of activities.

So how do you decide what they should do, and if they’re ready to do it overnight on their own?


Drawing on her nearly decade of experience selecting camps for her own children, Lyons says there are really three key factors to consider: Know your child, both their interests and capabilities; Know your own summer camp expectations; and set your limits, like travel distance and cost.

But how do you know what camps are available in the area? Lyons asked neighborhood parents who had sent older children to camps they recommended. She also attended the JO Wilson Elementary DC Summer Camp Fair ( “I got lots of great ideas there,” she said.

Both Lyons and Karen Pezos, who is helping organize this year‘s camp fair, say January is the time to start thinking about summer camps. The DC Summer Camp Fair offers one-stop shopping for possible camp experiences, as well as a chance to meet camp representatives and ask questions. More than 400 parents attended the free event last year to check out 30 different camps. This year, the Camp Fair takes place Saturday, Jan. 20 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at J.O. Wilson Elementary (660 K St. NE)

Parental Expectations and Limitations

As a parent, you will have hopes for your child. Do you want them to spend time outdoors? To have free time each day? Do you hope they will learn to swim or to build robots? You will want to measure camps against these types of expectations.

There are also two parental costs associated with camp: time and money. Cost is an important consideration when choosing a camp. Camps in the District and area range from Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) day camps at $5-$150 per week to thousands of dollars per session for overnight specialty camps. The other consideration is time spent traveling. Lyons estimates that her children have attended every camp within a 40 minute radius from the Hill. That’s because that is the limit of how far she is willing to travel . She’s willing to travel further for week-long sleepaway camps, she said, and often will carpool with friends.

Choosing Activities

One good place to start when choosing a camp is to determine what your child is interested in. You can ask your older child, but for younger children, watch what environments and activities capture their interest.

Many day and overnight camps offer themed weeks, allowing your child to take a deep dive into something that will keep them engaged, while potentially helping them build skills and experience.

Horseback riding is one specialty residential camp available at Camp Horizons. Courtesy: Camp Horizons

A wide variety of specialty day camps are available in the District. Kids can make scientific discoveries in subjects ranging from chemistry and space exploration to robotics in the themed sessions at Mad Science ( or try out different dance styles from ballet and jazz to sessions for the little pop star at Joy of Motion (

At Kids Set Sail (, which operates out of the Piers at Diamond Teague Park (99 Potomac Ave. SE), campers learn basic safety and sailing skills while intermediate students learn race techniques and navigational skills.

Lyons’ youngest daughter is interested in the dramatic arts. DC has a wide variety of theater-based specialty camps, including Arena Stage’s Camp Arena Stage (www.arenastage.corg) and The Theatre Lab ( Lyons sent her eight-year-old to Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Camp Shakespeare ( last summer and it got rave reviews. “Who thought eight-year-olds could do Shakespeare?” she asks rhetorically. “But they made it happen. They made my kid love Shakespeare, which I find both inspiring and surprising.”

It is important to look for a balance between structured and unstructured activities. Perhaps your child’s interests are too disparate for them to be occupied with one topic for an entire week, let alone an entire summer. Many day camps offer children a wide variety of activities, often inviting campers to have some semblance of choice throughout the day.

For instance, every week has a different theme at Adventures on the Hill ( “The theme is more to expose children to different things,” said Founder April Nelson, noting that it guides field trips and special guests for the week. Campers have some latitude; at a morning meeting they choose as a group which activities they will do and in what order.

Choice is a priority at Steve and Kate’s Camp, which has three locations in the DMV, including one at Van Ness Elementary. The goal is to create an environment where campers aged 4 to 13 can exercise choice, self-control and curiosity. Steve and Kate’s Camp DC Director Preshia Washington said campers practice self-directed learning. Campers are provided with a wide range of activities to choose from, including sewing, baking, water play, playgrounds or just some quiet time, reading.

Overnight or not?

As children get older, most yearn for greater independence. Sleepaway summer camp, either co-ed or single gender, is one way for children to achieve that sense of independence at the same time as they are safely supervised doing activities they love.

But is your child ready for sleepaway 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, an ACA 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 kid is ready to get away for a while, there are several overnight options available close to home. Adventures on the Hill is offering an overnight camp for middle-schoolers aged 10-13. Founder Nelson said the idea originated as her own daughter, now 12, looked for more independence. “I feel a little more comfortable with her going to an overnight camp that’s in the city and not far from us,” she said, “so we decided to contact a couple of universities in the area.” The new camp will operate on the Catholic University Campus. 

Each week at Adventures will have a theme; the overnight campers will spend the night
in dormitories with the Camp Director and Counselors. Because it is new, registration will open later than other camps. You can learn more and get on the waiting list at

For other teenagers, distance and independence might be what they are looking for. “Teenagers especially like to feel like they can just go hang out with their friends,” said Camp Hidden Meadows ( representative Corinne Bryant.

Camp Hidden Meadows is an overnight camp for boys and girls aged 6 to 16 located in the Allegheny Highlands of West Virginia. The camp offers more than 50 activities, including horseback riding, gardening and white-water rafting. Campers are given the option to choose activities they want to participate in. Bryant said the options give kids both the freedom to choose how to enjoy their summer safely under supervision.

Independence is key to a successful overnight camp experience, Mark Rainey says; it is both something they should have and something they will build at camp. Rainey is Associate Director of Camp Horizons (, a sleepaway camp for kids aged 6 to 16 located in Harrisonburg, VA. The camp offers different programs, including an equestrian camp for kids aged 9-16 centered on horses. Campers spend up to three hours a day riding, and other activities are tailored to help them learn about topics like stable management and care, grooming and preparation for horse shows.

A Unique Community

Camp is a big jump –especially overnight camp, Rainey acknowledges. But it’s a fun place to be. The reason most camps are successful, Rainey said, is because it is a place to get unique experiences and build new relationships. Summer camp is a whole new culture, he said.

“Do you want your camper to become part of a community you can’t get anywhere else?” He asked. Kids make new friends from many different areas in a community they build themselves.

Camps encourage parents to reach out to them, ask any questions they have and raise concerns. “We want to do everything that we possibly can do on our end to make it right for their child,” Rainey said. “In all honesty, it’s really exciting to get to work with these kids on the front end of their development,” said Rainey. “It’s why we do it, one hundred percent.”

Learn more about camp and get camp tips at

With any camp you choose, verify that they’re certified with the American Campus Association (ACA). ACA’s accreditation process is an independent safety audit evaluating up to 300 standards for camp management and programming.