Summers are magical. School’s out, the days are long, and free time abounds. Yet after a month or so, boredom sets in and kids start gravitating toward the couch, glued to smartphones, binging on Netflix, and playing video games for hours on end. That’s where summer camps come in.
Camp is designed to let 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 gadgets, swapping them for conversation, fun, and games in an outdoor setting. Camps provide children with a community of caring mentors who offer educational experiences that lead to self-respect, an appreciation for our environment, independence, the ability to overcome challenges, new friendships, and enduring memories.
The great news for parents is that today’s abundance of camps, there’s literally something for every child. On the flip side though, with so many options, choosing can make you feel a lot like Goldilocks on the hunt for the most comfortable bed.
Whether you’re thinking about sending your child to the day camp down the street or an overnight camp a few hours away from home, here are a few tips for choosing an amazing summer camp experience.
Before you can pick the right summer camp, you need to set some expectations. Start by asking yourself what you’d like your children to gain from the camp experience. Do you want them to meet new friends with similar interests? Try a specialty camp in a subject they love. Looking to keep them thinking and learning throughout the summer months? Be sure to include older children in your conversations about summer camps, starting with a discussion on expectations. As tweens and teens get older, the traditional idea of “summer camp” can start to lose appeal. By understanding how they’d like to spend their summer, you can reframe the conversation to find a summer program that will meet their needs. The goal is to get tweens and teens excited about camp by finding programs that are in line with their current interests. By making sure you and your teen are on the same page, you’re much more likely to find a camp that you both love.
Once you have a good idea of what you’re hoping to gain from camp, it’s time to narrow down which type of programs will meet your needs. Here’s what you can expect from today’s most popular summer camps:
Traditional: Think back to your own summer camp experiences; these co-ed and single-gender camps build self-confidence and character in a traditional outdoor setting, with an emphasis on fun and physical activity.
Academic: Your kids can keep learning even when school’s out. Academic camps combine outdoor summer fun and adventure with high-level academic learning. For instance, Wolf Ridge’s Credit Academy Programs allow teens with an interest in our environment to earn high school and college credits as they work with professionals on authentic research projects. Academic camps are a great way to supplement education for students who don’t like traditional instruction. These types of camps give students the chance to focus on one particular academic activity or skill and develop it over the length of the camp session. While the courses of study focus at Wolf Ridge focus on freshwater ecology and environmental ethics, many camps provide math, language arts, theater, photography, or computer-focused areas of study. Cost can vary widely depending on materials used and length of camp.
Adventure: Fun, engaging, and high-energy—these camps are great for exploring new experiences and places. Wilderness trips teach backcountry travel and outdoor skills that allow kids to keep exploring. Challenge skills like rock climbing build character and confidence.
Music or Art: Music and art camps offer students the chance to explore their artistic interests in a group setting outside of school. Kids sometimes focus on playing a specific instrument, marching in a band, painting, drawing or the visual arts, while other camps provide the opportunity to learn more about computer-based design and graphic arts.
Special Needs: These camps create a summer camp environment for students who, due to physical, mental, or emotional challenges, might not have the option to attend typical summer camps or activities. Staff are chosen with this in mind and activities can vary widely. Camper-to-staff ratios are lower to provide individualized attention and create an environment that is comfortable and appropriate for the campers needs. Those with unique health challenges will find new friends who share their life circumstances and the shared community can be life-changing.
Athletic: Athletic camps are perfect for kids who are passionate about a specific sport and are looking to learn new skills during summer. If your child wants to learn a new sport or improve their current skill level in hockey, lacrosse, soccer, swimming, football or basketball, there are sports camps available.
There is one simple difference when it comes to summer camps. Depending on your child’s age and comfort-level with being away from home, day camps, like the Wolf Ridge Day Camp program are a good starting point. They provide the opportunity for children to socialize, learn new skills or play games during the day, while getting picked up at the end of each day to return home. Peg Smith, former chief executive officer of the American Camp Association states that “day camps help kids learn about being part of a community and how to cope with temporary separation. They are not only a good transitional step for kids but also for parents, who often need to learn these same separation skills.”
If your child is comfortable with being away from home for an extended period of time, they are probably ready for an overnight camp experience (also called residential camp). Overnight camps provide your child the chance to learn independence, problem solving skills, team-work and community building in a supervised setting. Overnight camps like the Wolf Ridge Summer Sampler are a great place to start for campers who are new to being away from home. A 4-day/3-night program where parents are able to share the final day with their children allows not only the child to experience independence away from the parents for a few days but for them to then show their parents everything they have learned and gained during that short time.
Studies show that children who stay at camp longer durations tend to experience greater positive life changes and social skills. If your child is ready for a longer camp experience, Wolf Ridge offers 1 and 2 week camps like the, Jr. Nats 2-week Apostle Islands Sea Kayak, the Adventurers 2-week BWCA Canoe or Voyageurs 2-week Ultimate Survival. These programs provide your child with benefits of a traditional camp experience with a challenge and personal growth of a wilderness trip.
Don’t be afraid to research, research, research, to ensure you make a decision you and your child will be happy with. Feel free to contact camp directors and ask questions before making any decisions. Good camps expect to hear from you during the selection process. When registration opens up, Wolf Ridge receives many phone calls from parents, and as the camp director, I can tell you that I enjoy talking with families of our campers. A camp that truly values community and camper development knows that working closely with each camper’s family allows the experience at camp to have long lasting positive impacts on the child. When researching a camp, be prepared with a list of questions you would like answers to. Common questions to ask;
Staff are an invaluable part of the summer camp experience. It is important to find a camp with staff your kids will adore. In the same way that a great teacher can turn a boring subject into something magical, the right summer camp counselor will make your child’s camp experience unforgettable. But, what makes a good camp counselor? To start, they should be passionate about working with children and teens. We’ve all seen the staff who are glued to their smartphones; that’s not who you want supervising your children. Instead, counselors should be fun, upbeat, and both compassionate and understanding with all the children they are working with.
Determining the quality of staff before attending camp is difficult but do-able. Many camps provide bios on their staff explaining their background and qualifications. A camp that truly values community development lets the campers and their families know which staff will be working directly with their child before the session starts. This allows each family to read through those bios or contact the camp first hand to learn more about those staff members.
In addition, look for low camper-to-staff ratios (6:1 for campers ages 6-8 and 8:1 for campers ages 9-14). Be sure your that your camp runs background checks on all instructors.
Summer camp prices vary—and for good reason. Don’t let sticker shock keep you from the camp of your (child’s) dreams. Instead, evaluate price as part of the bigger picture, as much as budgets allow. Here’s how:
Think of camp as an investment. Think back to the beginning of this blog, research has proven over and over again that children gain so much from attending camp. They build self-confidence, meet new friends, and gain independence in an inspiring setting. Sure, some camps are expensive, but when you look at the lengthy list of short-term and long-term benefits, you’ll realize they’re almost always worth the cost. Also, compare prices against competitors in the same subject area and geographical region. This will give you a good baseline for how expensive the camps in your area cost.
And don’t forget to determine what’s included in the final price. Does the camp provide meals? Offer early pick-up and drop-off? Transportation? Make sure you’re paying for the benefits that are most important to you and your family.
Last, look for discounts or scholarships. Many camps offer discounts to families with multiple children, those who bring a new friend to camp and even early registration discounts. Scholarships vary camp by camp but the true hallmark of a camp community is that they offer scholarships to families in need.
I believe experiencing summer camp is something that everyone will benefit greatly from. Camp is a place for kids to grow as people and to have fun. When I was a young camper at a music camp that focused on marching band, I learned so much more about life than how to tie friendship bracelets or play the flute; Camp gave me genuine skills and friendships and a new sense of who I was. I hope everyone gets to have those experiences.