Summer camp 101: Catapult into camp season with tips from parenting expert

April 25, 2024 | School's out? Tips, ideas to keep the kids busy with camp (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

WASHINGTON — Think summer is all fun and games? Think again. For working parents, the end of the school year means the beginning of a new wave of stresses.

“For kids you want it to be a time to relax and try new things and to have adventures and to push themselves or to recover from the school year, but for parents, [summer] can be a logistical and financial torture zone,” said Leslie Morgan Steiner, parenting expert and blogger for modernmom.com.

Many parents rely on summer camps to entertain the kids and fill gaps in child care. But piecing together a medley of activities to carry everyone through August can be an administrative nightmare, not to mention a drain on the bank account.

However, Steiner says with a little bit of mental and financial preparation, planning for summer can be a breeze. Here are her tips to help parents — and kids — catapult into camp season.  

Be practical in your approach

With so many different options out there, Steiner says sometimes the best are the camps that work well with your family’s schedule. This may mean you’ll have to say “no” to that thrilling space camp that lets out at noon. However, Steiner says in the long run, that won’t matter.

“Forget about the myth that you have to give your kids a perfect summer. They’re kids, they’re going to enjoy summer no matter what,” she said.

Your child’s needs should also help guide your camp selection. Steiner says some kids really need a break in the summer and might thrive in a more laid-back camp environment.

“Other kids are very ambitious about their summers and they want to do every conceivable sport and cram a lot in,” she said.

Chances are, you’ll be able to find something out there that will strike a balance between your child’s needs and your family’s needs — especially in the D.C. area.

“We have so many choices in terms of weeklong camps. Every conceivable sport that your kid could want to try, there is a one-week summer camp for it here, in D.C., and they tend to not be that expensive,” she said.

American Camp Association and Camp Finder are great tools for finding camps in your area.

However, not all camps have to take place at a community center or sports company. Steiner says summer is a great time to get together with your neighbors and organize an informal camp where parents take turns leading the kids. 

When is it OK to send your child to sleepaway camp?

Sleepaway camps are a rite of passage for kids, but how do you know if your child is ready? Steiner says it’s best to take your cue from your kid. Some may be eager to test it out before they turn 10, while others may never be ready to be separated.

Steiner says often times, sleepaway camp is just as nerve-racking for the parents as it is for first-time campers.

“It was a very strange feeling to drop her off and know that I was not going to be able to talk to her for a week,” Steiner said about sending her daughter to camp for the first time.

However nervous you may be, make it a point to follow the camp’s guidelines. Do not sneak your child a cellphone if they are against the rules, and trust the camp’s directors; Steiner says they are the experts.

“The whole point of summer camp is to let your kid have a little freedom and see how they do on their own, and to see how you do on your own — it’s good preparation for the future,” she said.

Financing the fun

Camps can cost anywhere from $100 a week to thousands, so Steiner says it’s important to look at your child care budget for the summer, and if necessary, start saving a few months before.

If there’s a camp your child is interested in, but is a little bit more than you want to spend, consider treating it as a special reward — part of a birthday present or a graduation gift.  

“You just have to be practical about it. I don’t think it’s the type of thing you should spend a lot of money on if you’re on a tight budget, but it’s a great thing if you really want something special to give it to them,” she said.

Most of the time, it’s not worth shattering your budget.

“I found there’s very little correlation between how much the camp cost and how much fun the kids have,” Steiner said.

Another option is to treat a visit to a grandparent’s house as a camp-of-sorts. The trip will give your kids a change of scenery and activity, and will save you money.

Things to consider

When you’re looking into camps, Steiner says there are some things to consider. First and foremost is safety — especially if there is a pool or another body of water at the camp.

Ask other parents for recommendations, Steiner says. And if it’s possible, tour the facility ahead of time.

Keep in mind that your child does not need to do everything with his classmates. Summer is a great opportunity to take a break from school friends and broaden your child’s social circle.

“Summer camps are a great opportunity to reinvent yourself and kind of get a break from the social dynamics at school,” Steiner said.

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