A camp planning lifesaver for parents

Are you new to planning for summer camp and wondering where to start?

We have plenty of great tips for you, but Lauren Gruelich's story might give you the inspiration you need to get started on the camp hunt.

Lauren had so much fun at day camp at Anne Arundel County Recreation and Parks Department that she never stopped going. Her story is what parents strive for when planning their kid's summer camp experiences in Maryland.

CampKidLauren started at the camp when she was 6 years old and attended every summer until she was 14. After that, she worked as a volunteer until she could enter the Counselor-in-Training program at age 16. Now in college, she works with the camp as an assistant director.

"My favorite parts of camp were all the great trips we went on and the friendships I made," says Lauren, who now lives in Mayo. "It was always so exciting to see everyone that came back to camp each year, and how we could maintain the friendships we'd made in previous years."

How do you ensure the same wonderful camp experience Lauren had for your own children? Here are some tips to get you started on finding just the right camp for your kids this summer.

Why day camp?

Day camp is great for kids of all ages. The experience gives young children who might not be ready to be away from home all the benefits of camp while still allowing them to sleep in their own bed at night, according to the American Camp Association.

"Sending your child to camp provides them with fun activities, educational opportunities and most of all, lasting friendships," says Jacque Hurman, recreation supervisor and director of North Arundel Aquatic Center.

But day camp isn't just for kids who need someone to watch them during the summer.

"For older kids, camps that appeal to their interests can provide enrichment and help them explore their interests at a time when they're trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives," says Shanae Newman, program coordinator for Camp Divalicious, a fashion camp for teen girls in Capitol Heights.

When to start looking for camp

According to Newman, parents need to start talking with their kids about camp and what they're interested in as early as December or January. Most camps finalize their schedules in February and start sending out information and opening registration in February and March.

"If there's a specific camp your child is interested in, I recommend you sign up right away," says Maggie Harris, assistant director of lifelong learning and youth at Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, which hosts Kids in College camps. "For example, we held a Minecraft camp last year that was filled up the first day of registration."

There are other benefits of signing up early. According to Hurman, many camps will have early bird registrations, which offer discounts and help ensure your child gets the camps he or she wants at the times convenient for you.

But don't stress if you can't plan that far in advance. Many camps will take registrations up until the day camp starts if there is an opening.

"It's hard to predict which camps will be popular from year to year, but we do usually have a few openings in some of our camps throughout the summer," Hurman says.

Where to look for camps

Internet searches and camp directories, including the Chesapeake Family Day Camp Directory and Overnight Camp Directory are great ways to start looking for camps for your child.

It's also a good idea to attend camp fairs where you can talk with directors face to face and pick up materials from a variety of different camps. Chesapeake Family Camp Fairs in March.  Other ways to find out what's available in your area are to talk with other parents, ask the guidance counselor at your child's school or visit the local library, which may have fliers for local camps.

Click Next below to find out what to look for in a camp and questions to ask.

What to look for in a campCamp2W

Once you're aware of what's out there, it's time to narrow your search. Here are some tips on how to cull the list of possible camps:

  • Communicate with your child. There are so many options when it comes to day camp that you and your child might be overwhelmed. A little communication, however, might help you narrow the list. Start by asking your child what he or she is interested in, and balance that with what you know about your child's personality and interests, says Michelle Lillie, director of the arts at Lillie Pad Studios and Summer Art Camp in Millersville.
  • Consider your family's needs. You may be looking for supervision for your children while you work, or you might just want the opportunity for the kids to get out of the house and experience something new. This criteria will help determine whether specifics such as whether you're looking for full-day or half-day camps, as well as how many weeks you will need to enroll your child.
  • Research the camp. There are several important factors to consider before choosing a camp. First, ask if the camp is accredited through the American Camp Association, or has certification through the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Office of Childcare, which set minimum standards for safety, including background checks and drug tests for employees, according to Hurman. "Most camps well exceed the minimums, but having to follow set standards is important for a safe environment," she says.
  • Ask for a curriculum or agenda of what is planned at camp. "You want to know they're busy and you're not just paying for expensive babysitting," Newman says.

Keep communicating

Before camp starts, be sure to fill out all of the paperwork and medical forms.

"I can't stress enough how important this is," Harris says. "The more we know about a child ahead of time, the better able we are to ensure they have a good experience at camp."

Harris also encourages communication between the parents and the camp counselors and directors, especially if your child has any special concerns such as food allergies, behavior or learning disabilities, or health issues. And, of course, once camp starts, if your child comes home miserable or has any problems, be sure to address that with the camp as well.

"Our goal is to make good memories, and we will do what it takes to make sure every child has a good time," Harris says.

Choosing among camp types

Wondering what type of camp might be best for you child? Here is what camp directors had to say about the various options available:

  • Sports camps ¬ These help improve skills for kids who are already focused on a particular sport, but can also be a good way to introduce kids to sports they aren't as familiar with. And they keep kids active!
  • Education camps ¬ Avoid the summer slump by keeping the learning going. A good thing about camps with an education focus is they are structured differently than school, so kids have fun while learning in a new environment.
  • Art camps – Whether the focus is on glass blowing, painting, drama or dance, these camps can cover a specific area much more in depth than kids will ever get in school.
  • Special needs camps — Kids with special needs will find a place to let loose with others in the same boat, whether it's asthma, diabetes or a specific disability.

Be prepared!

Questions to ask before signing up:

  • Is the camp accredited or certified?
  • What are the hours? Are there extended-care options?
  • What are the payment options?
  • Is there a sibling discount?
  • Is transportation available?
  • What food is provided and should kids bring?
  • How does the camp deal with food allergies?
  • What is the camper to counselor ratio?
  • What training does the staff receive?
  • What will my child be learning/doing?
  • How are campers grouped (by age/activity)?
  • Are parents welcome to visit?

From the American Camp Association and area camp directors.