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Choosing the right summer camp for your child

Every year, more than 11 million young Americans go to summer camp. One in three attends day camp; the others pack up their sleeping bags, sunscreen and S'mores and head off for the forests, mountains and beaches that harbor 12,000 summer camps.

It's an All-American rite of passage, a ritual that began a century ago when immigrants sent their children out of hot, dusty cities for a summer of fresh air, friendship and fun. It's also an industry that has grown nearly 90 percent in the past 20 years, a mostly nonprofit business with every need, taste and skill level catered to, in a mind-boggling array of summer activities.

It's also something that could shape or even save your child's life.

Obesity in children, notes Ann Sheets, national president of the American Camp Association, is epidemic. Summer camp activities that keep kids active and healthy can cure that epidemic. "Children are not overweight because they eat too much," Sheets explains. "They are overweight because they are not physically active. In the camp community, children and youth participate in healthy activities that contribute to the growth of healthy habits."

Choosing the right one for your child, however, can be a daunting task.

"Do not begin by selecting a camp," says Jeff Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Association in New York. "That's putting the cart before the horse. Instead, begin with a self-evaluation. Your family should sit down and consider a lot of other things before you even start thinking about which camp to choose."

Here are seven things to consider before you start looking at specific camps:

  • What are your child's interests and objectives? Discuss why your child wants to go. Is it for fun, to learn and build skills or to develop character, self-confidence or independence? Involve your children in choosing the camp. After all, they are the ones who will be living there for the summer. Ecourage them to ask questions.
  • Is your child ready for a sleepover camp? For children 10 and younger who haven't spent much time away from home, day camp might be best until they can cope with the common problems kids have at camp, such as separation, independence and dealing with the opposite sex. While many camps are all-boys or all-girls, a growing number of sleepover camps are coed and involve plenty of boy-girl activities.
  • Where should you look? "Don't limit your search to one state or to an arbitrary distance from home," says Solomon. "If your child is having a good experience, the distance from home does not matter, unless you plan to visit often and travel costs are important. Otherwise, don't sacrifice something high on the wish list for accessibility."
  • What will it all cost? This is a vital element in your planning. Camp costs vary greatly and there's even financial assistance available.
  • What about camp size? Camps tend to fall into the 100- to 400-camper sizes. Smaller camps offer more-personalized supervision. But larger camps are often broken down into smaller units, so campers usually get the same level of attention they would at a smaller place. And, Solomon says, "If you feel your child needs special attention in an area such as confidence building, it is probably more important to find out how a camp meets that need, rather than getting hung up on size."
  • What type of camp should you choose? Do you want something general, or a specialty camp for, say, computer skills, or one that helps your child develop social interaction skills with members of the other sex? Specialty camps focus on such things as horseback riding, foreign language, music, cooking, sports or science and allocate more time to those activities. General camps usually concentrate on team, individual and water sports. If you're considering a specialty camp, make sure your child wants to commit to spending a major portion of the day on one sport or activity.
  • Does my child have special needs? There are good summer camp programs that emphasize weight loss, kosher food, vegetarianism, special diets and empowering the physically disabled. There are camps for children with Attention Deficit Disorder, the learning disabled and for children suffering from a variety of ailments, including the famous Hole in the Wall camp in Connecticut run by actor Paul Newman for child cancer victims.


Next: "What is the camp's philosophy?"
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