How to pick a summer camp for your kid, in 8 steps
Going to summer camp can be an eye-opening experience for a child, a chance to build self-esteem by making new friends, gaining a little independence and trying activities that may not be feasible at home. Depending on the program, campers may tackle sailing or horseback riding. Some may take a break from screens.
If you're looking into selecting a summer camp, there are many factors to consider. The most important one is what your child enjoys. What are their interests or passions? Do they want to delve into music and the arts or explore science at NASA's Space Camp? As the director of a Japanese camp in northern Minnesota for eight summers, it was invigorating for me to see campers connect through a common interest in the language and the culture.
According to the American Camp Association, the United States has more than 12,000 camps, including day camps and overnight programs. The ACA website is an excellent resource, listing about 4,000 accredited camps that offer safe and nurturing environments.
With so many choices, deciding on a camp can be overwhelming, so we've compiled some tips to help guide your selection process. While some camps open registration for the following summer as early as the preceding autumn, most camps will start in early spring. Popular camps fill up quickly, so be sure to be on top of this if you have a specific camp in mind.
1. Set your budget
Day camps can start around $25 per day, while overnight camps start around $50. The price can soar from there depending on the facilities, activities, and staff-to-camper ratio.
According to ACA spokesperson Lauren McMillin, prices continue to rise along with inflation. An ACA survey that includes 2021 data and 2022 projections shows an average daily cost of $178.49 per person for day camp and $448.53 per person for overnight camp. McMillin notes that more camps responded from the affiliated nonprofit sector, which could skew results.
Parents and guardians will want to include money for the canteen, any optional activities, and transportation to and from camp. Some camps offer scholarships, so don't let the initial cost be a deterrent.
2. Pick a goal for the summer
Does your kid want to learn a language, improve music skills, master the basics of camping or pick up computer programming? Is placing them in a religious camp important to the family? Other considerations may include the diversity of staff and campers, the daily schedule, and whether any activities are optional.
The camp where I worked offered the opportunity to try many Japanese activities, including calligraphy, kendo (a traditional martial art) and taiko drumming. Staff spoke mostly Japanese, and the kitchen served Japanese food at all meals. Kids quickly learned to use chopsticks, as they would in a visit to Japan.
Some summer camps offer opportunities to obtain high school or college credit, notably for some classes not available in local schools.
3. Debate day camp vs. overnight
Talk with your child to see if they are ready for an overnight camp. Day camp, a great steppingstone, will probably be near your home unless you want to plan a holiday and stay at a hotel or rental nearby. Parks and recreation boards, universities, museums and zoos may offer day camps during the summer.
4. Consider virtual camp
For those who prefer home — for instance, if concerned about the coronavirus — there are virtual camps. Esmé Krom, a 16-year-old from Cambridge, Mass., attended online sessions from the Norwegian branch of Concordia Language Villages.
"We learned about different Norwegian bands and music vocabulary," Krom said in an email. "All the normal summer camp activities worked pretty well online, like Norwegian-themed crafting and introductions ... except singing, which ended up being pretty funny for us all because of Zoom (lag)."
5. Check on dietary restrictions
If your child has any special dietary needs, you'll want to ask the camp if it can accommodate them.
Michelle Isban of Westchester, N.Y., offered the following advice after sending her 9-year-old daughter with food allergies to summer camp.
"I asked all the camps about their allergy protocols. Some camps were not comfortable with her allergies," Isban said. "Parents should feel comfortable to be able to speak up and advocate for their children to ensure their needs are met and that they're going to be happy and safe in their summer home."
Camp Walt Whitman in Piermont, N.H., has a separate allergy kitchen, food station and allergy specialist on staff, and it was proactive and professional with managing food allergies.
"We completed forms and had weekly calls," Isban said. "They have separate allergy snack boxes for each child with snacks that fit their allergy needs."
6. Test out family camp
At a family camp, a child can get to know some of the counselors and the daily schedule with some familiar faces at their side. If they return the next summer for a regular session without parents, they have the advantage of knowing the layout of the site, the staff and some of the camp rituals.
The best way to find a camp can be word of mouth from campers or staff. At the Minneapolis St. Paul airport a few summers back, I saw three boys who looked to be around 10 years old chatting excitedly about their time at camp. When I approached the counselor with them, she said they were from Camp Nebagamon and let me take a photo of her staff T-shirt, as I wasn't sure that I would be able to recall the name, let alone pronounce it.
I emailed for information about family camp and had a reassuring conversation with the director by phone. The following summer we attended for a week. The counselor from the airport was there, so we already felt like we had a friend. We both had a blast sailing, trying archery, tie-dyeing T-shirts, rock-climbing, and enjoying the fellowship of the families and staff.
7. Prepare for homesickness
Once you have decided on a camp, be sure to talk to younger kids about homesickness. They should not feel embarrassed to talk to their counselors about missing home. Send along some photos of the family or any pets.
By the end of the session, most campers won't be ready to leave. Some will cry with emotional farewells as they start talking about returning the following year.
8. Watch them flourish
It's been a joy to watch the influence of summer camp in Kat Lonsdorf, a former camper from my counselor days. She first arrived from Washington, D.C. as a scrawny and curious 6-year-old. She attended Japanese camp for 10 summers and went on to a study-abroad program in Okinawa. Now she is a producer for NPR, and she returned to Japan to report on recovery efforts in Fukushima nearly a decade after the nuclear disaster.
"Going to camp every summer was some of my favorite memories growing up," Lonsdorf said in an email. "I still have friends from camp, even 20 years later. It was an awesome — and yes, also nerdy — bonus that I learned a language on top of all that."