How to Pick the Right Summer Camp for Kids

It’s much more than s’mores and sing-alongs: Top camps provide lifelong memories and skills. Here’s how to pick a winner — and help your kid have an awesome summer.

Even before I had kids, I knew they’d go to summer camp. I had spent literally decades (as a camper, staffer, and director) at my own sleepaway camp. What child of mine wouldn’t want to do the same?

But my daughters turned out to be homebodies who didn’t want to leave for a day, let alone overnight. My husband had never gone to camp himself and liked having everyone close in the summer. Faced with an uphill battle, I began to lose perspective. What did camp really matter, anyway?

It’s a question many parents struggle with — and one that camp professionals are eager to answer. Camp, they say, lets kids roam and play in a way they rarely do in their own neighborhoods these days. It takes them away from computers, TV, and other high-tech time-suckers, swapping them for conversation, fun, and games in a natural setting. And perhaps most important, camps are no-parent zones. “Kids have to learn how to separate from their families and become resilient and independent. Camp gives them a safe way to take these steps,” says Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association.

Day camps are a good starting point: “Kids learn about being part of a community and to cope with temporary separation,” says Smith. “They’re not only a good transitional step for kids but also for parents, who often need to learn these same separation skills.”

Camp directors say most kids are ready for an overnight option by age 12 — especially if they’ve enjoyed day programs. You just might have to give your child (and yourself) a little push.

That’s what I did with my older daughter, Anna, when she reached the magic age. Tearfully, I delivered her to my old camp in Colorado. It was wrenching; her father had approached her impending departure as if preparing for a death in the family. But soon we got a letter from her: “Having too much fun to miss you. Sorry.”

Whether you’re thinking about sending your child to the little day camp down the street or an overnight outfit a few states away, follow these tips for planning a no-regrets summer.

Doing Your Homework on Day Camp

Clearly, when you’re choosing a day camp, your options are limited to places close to home. But you’ll still likely have a choice, which is why, Smith says, it’s smart to talk with camp directors before making any decisions. Good camps expect to hear from you during the selection process.

The best camps always have someone who can talk with you before, during, or after camp, or will find someone to return your call. They will always have parental references for you to speak with, and many larger ones hold open houses. What should you look for? While there are specific qualities that make some camps better for a certain child than others (a kid who loves art, for instance, might not be a good fit at a place that’s all about horses), keep an eye out for these key things:

  • A history. There are definitely great new camps out there. But some experts (and families) believe that operating a camp for decades, especially with the same staff, does mean something. In today’s world, a camp simply couldn’t stay in business for generations if it were unsafe or poorly run.
  • A philosophy. Does it focus on sports? Arts? Leadership? How is this philosophy integrated into its programs?
  • An emphasis on creating community. Good camps think about how they place kids together to create the most inclusive experience for all. Another hallmark of community: a scholarship program.
  • A well-trained staff, in adequate numbers for a low campers-to-staffers ratio (about 10 to 1 for kids ages 8 to 14). The staff should be background-checked, too, with references, an interview, and a criminal-records search.
  • An element of choice. Your child will feel more independent if he can choose some activities.
  • A communications plan for letting parents know about upcoming events, and for notifying them if a child becomes sick or injured. They also have a consistent policy on camper phone use.

In particular, make sure you understand the program’s values and mission, and see if its activities match both its goals and your child’s interests. You’re looking for something educational but not merely an extension of school or daycare: A day camp should be different, with a wide range of activities your child wouldn’t otherwise have access to, that get him up and moving and building new skills.