By Faygie Holt
It may not be the first thing that comes to mind amid the hustle and bustle of the late fall and early winter holiday season, but now may be a good time to lock in a summer camp program for your child.
“The holiday season is a great time to look for a camp. Camp is a gift, and what better time to give the gift of camp than during the holidays?” said Rachel Steinberg, of Fort Washington, who serves as manager of new family engagement and community at Camp Harlam. “Camp offers kids so much — the opportunity to try new things, make lifetime friends, build independence, confidence and resilience, all while having lots of fun!”
While there is “no wrong time to look for a camp,” according to the American Camp Association, it’s worth reaching out early to see if your camp offers early-bird pricing or holiday specials.
Discount or not, the ACA notes, open enrollment for many camps starts in January, so it’s a good idea to have your preferred camp options narrowed down before then. “Some camps fill quickly, so there may be waitlists,” a spokesperson explained. “Some camps open their enrollment even sooner, like the end of summer, so be mindful of those facts when looking at camps.”
Last year, following two years of COVID-19 pandemic precautions, parents eager for their children to have fun registered them for camps as early as possible. That meant some longtime campers were shut out of their summer home for lack of space.
That’s what happened to the Lisa family of Broomall last summer.
“We’ve been going for years to one camp, and I didn’t usually register my kids until February or March,” Stephanie Lisa said. “Then, last year, the camp was fully booked in December. It didn’t matter if you were a returning camper. I was very upset about it, but they couldn’t add any bunks or more kids.”
Although Lisa ended up finding a much different camp that year that her boys loved, she did not want to be put in the same position again.
To avoid the same problem this year, she is already trying to find the right experience for Steven, 10, and Elliott, 8, for next summer. She’s also weighing the all-important question: Are they ready for sleepaway camp?
“I’ve toured four sleepaway camps, did research on two more and then the same thing with two day camps,” Lisa said. “It’s almost like interviewing for a private school or a college. You need to make sure the atmosphere, the personality of the people working there and the program itself offer what your kids need and like.”
According to Steinberg, “When looking for a camp, you should consider your goals for your child’s summer experience. There are hundreds of amazing camp options to consider, so it’s important to hone in on the things that are important to you and them. That could be things like values, the facility, program offerings, inclusion, etc. There are traditional camps that offer diverse programmatic experiences and specialty camps that offer kids more depth in their experience around a particular interest area like sports or arts.”
Parents should find out if the camp has received accreditation from the American Camp Association, which would indicate it has strict operational measures in place in areas like health, safety and risk management. Also, camp officials advise parents to “interview” the camp director, talk to parents whose children are already in the program and make sure you are comfortable with what you are learning from these discussions.
As to whether a child is ready for a sleepaway experience, Jamie Simon, who serves as the senior adviser of camps and talent at the national JCC Association and CEO of Camp Tawonga in California, suggested parents have their kids go on sleepovers and see if they can put themselves to sleep.
If your kids have never slept away from home and can’t get to sleep without you being there, that’s probably a sign they are not ready for sleepaway camp, Simon said. “But if they go on sleepovers, and they like sleeping away from home, that’s a sign they might be ready.”
“Sleepaway camp is the best,” she says. “It teaches kids to be their best self, to grow independently, to be part of a community and explore their identity in ways that are deep and meaningful and make friends for life.”
However, camp experts are clear that there is no one age when kids should or must go to sleepaway camp, and it’s important to consider each child individually when making summer camp plans.
Lisa says she’s narrowed down her choices — one sleepaway camp and one day camp depending on which route she and her husband feel is best – and will be making a decision shortly. But she knows it’s not a decision she could have made lightly.
“Camp is not something to do to keep kids busy for the summer,” she said. “It’s a significant investment in helping your child grow.”
To learn more about summer camps in general and find a camp for your child, the American Camp Association maintains a list of camps on its website, ACAcamps.org.
Faygie Holt is a freelance writer.