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How to find a camp your kid will love

With the dizzying array of camps and costs, you need some help making the right decision. Here are some questions to ask that will help you uncover an experience your child will remember.

By Stacy Johnson May 13, 2013 12:31PM

This post comes from Karen Datko at partner site Money Talks News. 

Money Talks News logoMock me, if you will, but I still remember the official song of the Girl Scout camp I attended as a young girl many years ago. ("There's a camp along the dusty road ….")

Summer camp can be among the most memorable and wonderful experiences of a child's life. So, picking the right camp is very important.

But it's not easy. Camps offer an amazing array of activities and experiences to choose from. The camp of my youth (Camp Riamo near Farmington, Pa.) was pretty basic. Many camps these days -- both day camps and overnight or sleep-away camps -- specialize in a particular sport, or fine or performing art. Of course, the cost range is equally wide. 

The earlier you start checking out camps, the better: It's already getting late. So if you haven't started yet, use the following tips soon.

First, here are some of the basics you need to cover with a camp you're interested in:

  • Is your camp accredited? The American Camp Association has a search tool to find camps accredited by the organization. (This valuable search tool also allows you to tailor your search according  to location, cost, activities and other important factors in your selection process.) Accreditation may not be essential, but it can help you decide.
  • How long has your camp been in operation?
  • What's your emphasis, and what types of activities are provided? You want the right match for your child, and you also want a program that provides a valuable experience.
  • What is the ratio of camp counselors to kids? Barbara Rowley wrote in Parenting that one staffer for every 10 campers is a good ratio for kids ages 8 to 14. Also, what type of training is provided to counselors and how are they screened?
  • How much does the camp cost? Is that all-inclusive or are there other fees, particularly for extra activities and field trips?
  • Can I visit the camp and/or talk to the camp director before I decide? I wouldn't send a child to a camp that doesn't provide such access.
  • Can you provide references? When you get those names, actually call those parents.
  • What if my child gets sick? Ask for a copy of the policies and procedures. Is medical care readily available?
  • What is your refund policy?
  • What supplies will my child need?
  • Do you allow cellphones? Rowley brings up this point in the Parenting article: If a camp allows a kid to constantly call and text home from overnight camp, that negates the lesson of independence that's essential to a good camp experience, no?
Girl Drinking from a hose © Vicky Kasala/Photodisc/Getty ImagesWhat type of camp is best for my child?

A major concern is whether your child is mature enough to attend overnight camp. Parenting magazine says 12 is about the right age to transition your child from day camp to overnight stays, while others say 7-year-olds can handle it. But it really depends on the child. What does he or she think?

Once that's decided, consider what type of experience would be best. Are you looking for a range of activities or a concentration in a particular area your child is interested in? (Note that your child should be a part of this deliberation.)

Another concern is what the day-to-day experience will be like. The National Camp Association provides some questions you might ask, including whether the camp will encourage children to try new things, what the camp's philosophy about competition is and whether the child will be allowed to choose his or her activities.

How much will it cost?

Here's one of the biggest questions for many families: How much will this cost? The cost can range from less than $100 into the thousands for long stays and specialty camps.

There are ways to keep the cost in check:

  • Camps sponsored by government entities and nonprofits are generally more affordable. For instance, among the many camp offerings of Hillsborough County in Florida is a two-week day camp for $76. Parents can apply to pay less based on their income.
  • Camps may offer scholarships.
  • Camps may provide an early-registration discount or a break if more than one sibling attends.
  • Some day camps are considered child care by the IRS, and qualify for dependent care flexible spending accounts and the child care tax credit.

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