Pack the bug spray, don’t forget the sunscreen and prepare for kids to get dirty, meet new friends, and most of all, make lasting memories. Summer camp is a tradition for some families — a rite of passage. It’s also an opportunity for children to learn a new skill, practice a sport, appreciate nature and take a break from the screen.
“There is a camp for everyone,” says Kurt Podeszwa, camp director at Camp For All in Houston. This “barrier-free” camp partners with nonprofits to provide camp opportunities for those with challenging illnesses or special needs.
The benefits of day camps, overnight camps and online camps stretch beyond the expected takeaways like developing relationships and stepping out of one’s comfort zone. “There is a lot of research around summer learning loss, and keeping the mind active and the body physical helps to reduce that,” Podeszwa says.
U.S. News talked to camp directors at different programs who shared insight on how families with K-8 students can choose a camp, prepare their children to get the most out of the experience and budget for the cost of summer camp.
Find the Right Summer Camp
Convenience is a major factor for many families choosing a summer camp for their children.
“Many families have two working parents, so managing pickups and drop-offs, along with carpooling, is a consideration,” says Brian Martin, assistant principal for student life and director of the Summer Enrichment Program at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland. SEP offers a combination of academics and athletics for young men entering eighth grade.
A camp’s history is also something parents should look at before signing up their child for a day camp or overnight experience, Martin says. “Does it have a strong and proven track record? What is its reputation in the community?” he suggests asking, along with getting testimonials from parents and campers.
Parents will also need to consider their child’s interests. “At the same time, challenge them to push their comfort zones,” advises Lauren Schmidt, executive director of the Colorado Outward Bound School, which provides outdoor adventure programs for people of all ages. “There are a lot of skills and growth that can be acquired.”
Here are other considerations for parents of K-8 students to keep in mind when choosing a summer camp:
Values. Podeszwa says it’s important to understand the camp’s belief systems and philosophy. Parents can ask, “What is the program focus?”
Accreditation. One way to vet a summer camp is to look for a program that is accredited by the American Camp Association. Parents can be assured that these camps all conduct criminal background checks on counselors and have training programs in place for staff.
Another reputable resource for guidance on how parents can find the best camp for their child is Summer Camp Opportunities Promote Education, known as SCOPE, which focuses on programs for kids from underserved communities.
As the ACA points out, licensing varies from state to state and is imposed. In contrast, accreditation is voluntary and demonstrates that a camp is committed to best practices.
Personal growth. “There is something purifying about knowing you need to rely on the things you are carrying with you in your backpack,” Schmidt says, describing Outward Bound’s challenging outdoor adventure programs. “Being separated from your creature comforts at home and knowing you can make it with many fewer material things than you generally rely on in your day-to-day life is mentally freeing.”
Counselor-to-camper ratio. When choosing a camp, parents will also want to ask how many campers per counselor there are. The ratio will depend on the age range of children and if the camp accommodates those with special needs, whether dietary or developmental. And if so, parents will want to understand how the camp adjusts the ratio.
For students at the K-8 level, ACA standards recommend the following for overnight camps.
— Ages 4 and 5: One counselor for every five campers.
— Ages 6 to 8: One counselor for every six campers.
— Ages 9 to 14: One counselor for every eight campers.
Day camps differ and tend to allow more campers per counselor. Here’s what ACA standards state for K-8 students.
— Ages 4 and 5: One counselor for every six campers.
— Ages 6 to 8: One counselor for every eight campers.
— Ages 9 to 14: One counselor for every 10 campers.
Understand Educational, Social Benefits of Summer Camp
Children are looking for connections, particularly given the impact the coronavirus pandemic had on the school year, Martin says. “It was so hard to have those connections, this rooting, and camps can provide those really positive peer relationships and role models, which are critical to students’ growth, development and maturity,” he says.
Kids are “amazingly open to new experiences,” Martin says. “They tend to be more resilient than adults and are willing to take risks, so that’s a huge benefit: that openness to growth that camp will bring.”
In Martin’s experience, campers don’t miss their connection to technology. “It’s amazing to see them just being kids and interacting without looking at their screens the whole time,” he says.
Teamwork and leadership development are key takeaways from camp at Outward Bound, according to Schmidt. “Our students can spend multiple weeks in the outdoors, and they are there regardless of the weather conditions,” she says. “It’s a lot of work and exercise, but they achieve milestones. Instructors progressively give them more control over time, and by the end of the course, the students are effectively running it.”
Campers learn that they can accomplish tough tasks, she says. “Then, when they move back to their lives in their classrooms and communities, when they are faced with hard challenges, they can draw on their Outward Bound experience,” Schmidt says. “They know they can do ever harder things than they did before.”
Weigh Overnight Camp, Day Camp or Online Summer Camp
When it comes to deciding whether to send a child to an overnight camp or summer day camp, “that’s a parental and kid choice,” says Podeszwa, who previously ran a resident camp that also offers a day camp for kids who are hospitalized.
Podeszwa sees advantages in both types of camps. “With residential camps, you get to sleep there and you get that night bonding, but honestly, I know a lot of day camps that focus so hard on that bonding that it’s really the same,” he says.
A day camp can be a great introduction to a summer experience, he says. “You can do a day camp and then a one- or two-week overnight camp as the child gets more used to it,” Podeszwa says. “You really have to gauge the child and determine the best fit. It depends on where the child is developmentally and what you want them to gain.”
Outward Bound tends to be a next-step overnight camp, Schmidt says. “It’s a logical progression for kids who go to overnight summer camp and really enjoy being outside and spending time in nature and that personal growth aspect,” she says.
Benefits of an overnight camp include gaining independence. “By separating kids from their parents and home, it’s a growth opportunity that lets them explore a part of themselves,” Schmidt says. “And post-pandemic, it’s more important than ever for many of our students because they have lost that opportunity to interact with peers in meaningful ways. They really need that right now.”
Overnight camps also separate kids from their electronic devices for a concentrated period of time, whereas at day camps, the option is likely available when the child returns home for the evening.
“We find this can be a point of anxiety for students and parents because parents are used to being in contact with their kids,” Schmidt says. “So when they get to the point where they are not attached to their phone for two weeks, it allows them to pick up their heads and look around and refocus on priorities. It forces them to interact in a team setting in a way that is harder to do these days.”
Meanwhile, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many traditional camps rolled out online camp opportunities that allow children to engage in new experiences from home. While in-person engagement is one of the hallmarks of summer camp, an online camp can make summer fun accessible to those who want an alternative to an overnight or day camp because of health reasons.
“Hopefully, we can move away from that going forward as more people get vaccinated and we get back to overnight camps,” Podeszwa says.
How to Pay for Summer Camp
Summer experiences can be costly for families, but as Podeszwa notes, just as there is a camp for everyone, there is also a camp for every budget.
“I’d caution against turning away from a camp because of the price tag,” he adds. “Camps have scholarship programs and there are organizations like ACA that raise money to allow kids to go to a more expensive camp and be able to afford it,” he says.
Plus, camps generally want to attract a broad demographic of children. “They want their kids to learn to work across socioeconomic barriers,” Podeszwa says.
Scholarships and financial aid for camps are not always obviously stated on websites, Schmidt says. “Parents should definitely ask if there is financial aid available,” she says. “Also, check with school guidance counselors because a lot of times, they are aware of programs that provide scholarships and financial aid for summer camps.”
Nonprofit camps including Outward Bound are subsidized by fundraising dollars, Schmidt says. “Even the full tuition price of Outward Bound does not reflect the true cost of the course,” she says. “We firmly believe that every student who wants the experience should have it, regardless of the ability to pay. So we offer both full scholarships and financial aid every year.”
For working families, Martin notes, camps can be less expensive than paying for daycare.
Parents should ask about multiple-child discounts and find out if there are loyalty discounts for returning campers, Martin says.
“Ask the camp directors if there is any flexibility with payments,” he advises. “Camps cannot run without bodies, and you want a good, vibrant camper population. A lot of camps are eager to find a way to provide great experiences for as many kids and families as they can.”
Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.
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