Tips on selecting the perfect summer camp for your kids

Camp WrightBy Kristy MacKaben

Nerves definitely got to Gracie English before her first week away at summer camp when she was nine-years-old.

The Towson resident had been away from home before, but never for this long, or without any family members. The fourth grader was a day camp veteran, but last summer it was time to move on to sleep-away camp. Gracie and her parents chose Camp Wright, a Christian camp in Stevensonville that they heard about through word of mouth.

"We asked fellow parents about the good, the bad and the ugly of past camps," says Gracie's dad Steve English. "Parents with a tad bit older children were able to help tremendously as they were able to speak from experience."

Once she got over the initial jitters, Gracie had a blast and was begging to go back the next year.

Summer camp is one of the rites of childhood. Camp experts, parents and campers agree that camp is a time for kids to mature and exert independence, as well as make friends and memories. Whether you're thinking day camp or sleep away camp, far or near, begin the hunt for the perfect summer camp at our Summer Camp Fairs using the tips below.

Click "next" below for things to consider when choosing a summer camp and remember, some camps offer perks for early registration.

Ready for overnight camp?

According to the American Camp Association, children under 7 might not be ready to be away from their parents for extended periods of time. Children are usually ready for sleep away camp when they stay overnight with friends with no problems and can take care of basic needs, such as getting dressed and brushing teeth. If your child doesn't seem ready for overnight camp, there are plenty of local day camps to consider.

Length of camp

If you have determined your child is ready for overnight camp, it's time to decide how long you want them to be away from home. Many summer camps offer a wide variety of options, from weekend getaways or one week mini camps to camps that are eight weeks or longer.

Camp experts like Eve Eifler, owner and director of Tips on Trips and Camps in Baltimore, says children should spend at least two weeks at camp. Less than two weeks may not allow enough time to get acclimated and work through any homesickness they might feel.

Fred Greenberg, owner of Timber Ridge Camp in the Shenandoah Mountains in West Virginia, believes campers should not go away for less than four weeks. "The longer period makes for a better camping experience," Greenberg says.

Geographic location

Some parents choose camps close to home so they are close to their children if something happens. Other families, however, choose camps further away so their children can experience different areas of the country.

"Sometimes it's better to not go where the neighborhood kids go," says Eifler.

General or specialty camp?

Elementary aged children will most likely have better camp experiences in a camp that doesn't focus on specific talents or interests whether it's a day camp or overnight. At specialty camps, children often spend four or five hours a day on a particular skill or interest, and that might be too much for a younger child.

"A general camp experience is probably more of a growing experience," Eifler says.

Older children, however, may enjoy a camp catering to their passions. From sports and horseback riding to robotics, journalism, dance and art camps, there are a plethora of specialty camps. At some camps, children can choose their schedules, and other camps the schedules are already set.

"There is something for everyone," says Eifler.

Camp staff

When researching summer camps, it's important to interview the camp director, Greenberg says. Greenberg meets with every family who registers for his camp. It's important for parents to know their children are in good hands.

"They should be concerned with the quality of camp," Greenberg says. "Staff is important. What's their background and what qualifies them to work with children?"

Criminal background checks are nonnegotiable and a minimum requirement, Greenberg explains. Staff members also need to be responsible, share the camp mission and be passionate about working with children.

"We take this job seriously," he says. "We've got people's most cherished possessions."


Contacting a camp referral service like Tips on Trips and Camps or the American Camp Association will give parents a better idea about what camps are available that fit their needs. In addition, parents should do research on the Internet as well as ask neighbors, friends, teachers and anyone trustworthy about camps they would recommend. Once families identify their top choices, they should visit each camp and interview the directors of the camps.

A life-changing experience

Once a camp has been picked and the camper registered, it's time to talk up the camp experience.

For most kids, camp will give them the chance to have the time of their lives —swimming, hiking, sports, arts and crafts and countless activities. But they're also learning life lessons, Eifler says. Teamwork, cooperation, leadership, independence, conflict resolution and problem solving are all skills that can be improved at camp. Kids often become more confident and self-assured through the camp experience. Greenburg is confidant children come home after camp years older, in terms of maturity.

"I think every child should go to camp," Greenberg says. "That experience doesn't exist anywhere but in summer camp."

Check out our story on what it takes to be a camp counselor.

Check out our overnight camp directory.


 Updated February 15, 2018.