Choosing a summer camp

When your child is ready for summer camp, where do you begin? With more than 12,000 camps in the U.S. alone, finding the right camp can be as challenging as choosing a college. The good news is that with many excellent camps nationwide, there is truly a camp for every child.

The Basics

“Start by defining your preferences,” says Michael Chauveau, executive director of the American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone Section. “Involve children in the discussion and the process. Visit camp websites online, watch videos and review brochures together. Try to visit camps in session. Allow children to ask the camp director questions. Listen to your child’s concerns. Choosing a camp together builds excitement and sends children positive messages.”

Lori Smith, director of Royal Oak Day Camp, suggests that exposing children to different activities is critical for a child’s well-being. “Parents know that playing video games for eight hours isn’t the best thing for a child. Parents should consider what children enjoy, but shouldn’t make that the only criteria for choosing a camp,” Smith says.

What kind of camp feels right for your family?

• Day or residential (overnight) camp? Children are often ready for overnight camp before parents are ready to “let go.” When parents are supportive, 99 percent of children are successful at camp.
Coed, all-girls, all-boys or brother/sister camp? Both single-sex and coed camps offer social and developmental benefits in different ways.
Traditional, specialty or special needs program? Ask about the camp’s philosophy and program emphasis.
Secular or faith-based camp? Faith-based camps may vary widely in their approach to religious programming; ask questions to find a good match for your family.
Close to home, within driving distance or far away? Many camps provide bus service or will meet children at airports. Traveling may increase opportunities for special skills, adventure or multicultural experiences.
Highly structured or free-choice program? Ask if campers do all activities with their cabin mates or choose electives for all or part of their day.
More or less rustic? Camps reconnect kids with the natural world, but some are more outdoors-oriented than others. Activities and adventure-level may vary with locale; living facilities at overnight camps range from tents and shower houses to cabins with private bathrooms. Parents should care that a camp is safe and well-run, campers care least about facilities.
How long a stay? Sessions may range from one to ten weeks. If your child will stay for a shorter session, consider a camp where all or a majority of campers arrive and depart for sessions together: it can be hard to leave new friends behind.
How much does it cost? Fees range from free at some nonprofit camps to more than $1,000 per week. Ask if a camp offers financial aid or scholarships. Some camps will allow parents to barter services, like marketing or general contracting, in exchange for tuition. Other camps may offer flexible payment plans to help families fit camp into their budget.

Finding camps

Once you know what kind of camp you’re looking for, use a variety of resources to find camps that meet your needs:

• Check Pittsburgh Parent’s Camp Guides for regional camp listings.
• Use online search engines, like ACA’s Find-A-Camp at
• Visit camp fairs in your area; find a camp fair calendar at or check local resources.
• Ask family, friends, teachers, school counselors, clergy, community members and your regional ACA office for camp references. Teachers often spend summers working as camp staff, so they may have personal recommendations. Professional camp advisors can also be helpful, but know that they are typically compensated by camps for their referrals.

Safety first
As you evaluate camps, safety should be your highest priority. Smith advises parents to ask about the staff and their qualifications, the staff to child ratio, the screening procedures for staff selection, and the percentage of staff that return to camp each year. “Parents should also ask if a child was ever seriously injured or lost on a field trip, and how those situations were—or would be—handled,” says Smith.

Chauveau says, “Ask if a camp is ACA-accredited. Camps earn accreditation by meeting more than 300 standards for every aspect of operations–including safety, staff, sanitation, transportation and more–and must submit to a review every three years. If a camp is not ACA-accredited, there may be a good reason: ask whether oversight is provided by another organization, like a municipal government or an educational association.”

“Parents should ask about the medical staff, and how the camp handles discipline, homesickness and other adjustment issues,” says Chauveau. Ask how meals are served, and whether the camp can accommodate special diets. Also ask if the camp sanitizes and promotes good habits to protect against H1N1. Finally, ask the director if you can speak with parents of campers the same age as your child.”
While it’s never too early to start considering camp, camps generally start enrolling in mid-winter and fill up in spring, though some camps may have openings throughout the summer. Camp helps children grow in countless ways. Choose wisely, and the benefits will last a

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section.