Since childhood, I have spent my summers the exact same way -- at my family's soccer camp. My father started the camp in the late 1970s when I was a young child, and my sisters and I loved spending our summers on a soccer field with our family. The staff, which included our four uncles, were engaging and fun. We learned how to play soccer, be competitive, and be a part of something larger than ourselves. The camp counselors were our role models and dominated our summer dinner table conversations. We couldn't wait to go back every year.
The traditions and memories my sisters and I cultivated during our summers at soccer camp remain with us as adults. One of my sisters and I now run the camp with our family -- and our children are campers -- which means there are three generations of family there on a daily basis. We are delighted that fond memories of our camp bring many parents back to enroll their own children, wanting the same experiences for them.
Because of my background, I am often asked what recommendations I have for parents who are looking into summer camps for their children. I suggest parents look into the history of the camp, its guiding principles, and target audience. Look for programs with experience and expertise. While I can't give away all of our family secrets, I do recommend considering the following important factors:
* Type of offering * Location * Safety * Staff * Program/routine * Family needs/ "Fit" * Type of camp
First, identify what type of camp interests your children most. Day camps tend to fall into three categories: sport camp, specialty camp, or general day camp. Do your children prefer a varied experience or would they rather a more in-depth experience in a single sport or specialty? Our soccer camp combines development, competition, and fun - which isn't easy to do. We stay current with U.S. Soccer guidelines, best practices, and coaching education. No matter the type of camp you're looking for, its directors and staff should have comparable qualifications.
Occasionally, we have children signed up for our camp who aren't particularly interested in soccer. Their parents likely want to generate some interest with their children and perhaps see soccer as a good form of exercise. While we love to introduce soccer to beginners and try to give a positive impression of the sport, some children are better off selecting another type of camp. And that's OK! There is no shortage of choice, and no matter where their interests lie, there is a camp that's right for them. Specialty camps include those that focus on the arts, music, outdoor adventure, academic pursuits (e.g., computer programming or language immersion), or other areas of talent development. And, of course, general day camps are a long-standing summer tradition. Explore the options for types of camp, then consider the location. Location Various camps are offered through parks and recreation departments, colleges, and other private entities. Parks and recreation departments typically use the parks and schools in their respective communities. The quality and novelty of these settings will depend on your town. Parks and recreation camps are convenient and are more likely attended by children your kids will know from school. Generally speaking, when children outgrow the camp programs offered through parks and recreation departments, college camp programs are a great step to pursue. Sport and specialty camps are often offered by colleges, and it can be an exciting opportunity for a child to spend time on a college campus. Camps that are not affiliated with a town or school are usually offered at private venues, such as a local day care, community center, or YMCA. Regardless of location, I recommend learning about whether the camp has its own space, or if the camp will be sharing space with another group or organization. Location often determines inclement weather contingency plans, drop off/pick up procedures, and safety issues. Safety After spending decades at our soccer camp before I became a parent, now that I am a mother, I look at our safety protocols from an entirely different point of view. One of the biggest compliments we get is that parents feel safe leaving their children in our care. And quite honestly, that matters far more than any soccer skills we teach. When considering the safety features of a camp, ask about drop off/pick up procedures, lunch-time routine, and other transition times (e.g., locker rooms). For instance, at our camp, we include recreational swim time, which requires added safety provisions. We communicate the daily routine and expectations clearly on our website and via email prior to camp. We also have enough experienced staff to talk with parents at drop-off to answer questions and reassure them about the routine. Look for camps that have clear communication and a strong personal presence. Clarity about the daily schedule and safety routine are key. A well-run camp will have contingency plans for weather issues, medical needs, special needs, and more. By law, camp staff are required to have CPR and First Aid certifications. Camps are also required to maintain particular staff-to-camper ratios. Staff In advance of a camp, parents may inquire about staff-to-camper ratios, group sizes, and placement practices. Learning about these camp features may lead to a better camp selection for your children. I recommend looking for a staff with a combination of age, experience, and expertise. With strong adult leadership, college and high school staff can be a real asset. I always say that it's my job to make sure things go smoothly and teach the campers how to play soccer -- it's the teenagers' job to be instant fun and entertainment! I am not the one our campers will be talking about at the dinner table -- but the young staff members have to be. As a camp director, it is my responsibility to create an environment that fosters personal connections and positive experiences. The more high-fives and fist bumps, the better! Parents want their children to come home excited to go back the next day or next summer. Look for a staff that makes this happen.
Another hallmark of good coaches and teachers is the ability to differentiate instruction within small groups. Again, an experienced staff will likely have a greater ability to tune into your children's interests and adapt the curriculum and lessons to meet the needs of individual campers. The hope is to have your children motivated to improve their skills and enjoy their experience in whatever camp setting they choose. Program Every camp should have a daily routine and curriculum that is followed each week. Ask about the daily routine, including active time. For example, our camp is a full six-hour day camp, but we don't keep the children playing soccer for six hours! Our schedule allows for breaks, lunch, swim, and more. Parents like to know how much soccer we get in and if the children will be outside during peak heat, which are great questions to keep in mind.
Camp staff will likely group children by age or ability at the start of the week. Parents may inquire about the camp groupings, opportunity to change groups, or chances for their children to be with friends. At our camp, we start with age grouping, but quickly adjust for ability. We want children to be challenged at an appropriate level. We make groups that have boys, girls, or both, depending on the weekly demographics. We also attempt to keep campers with a friend, as we find that having a friend eases worries and builds confidence. I recommend sending your children to camps with a sibling or friend (close in age). The shared experience is more fun and, ideally, once the children are at camp they'll make new friends, too. My sister met her future husband at our camp, so anything is possible! Family needs Parents should include children in the camp decision-making process. I can usually tell when campers don't really want to be there. If your child is unsure or new to camps, perhaps consider a general day camp with variety. Once your children learn more about what they enjoy, they may be in a better position to decide on a specialty camp.
Typically, the camp schedule is a priority in family decision-making. If your family needs daycare hours or before/after camp care, inquire in advance. Do not assume that before and after camp care is available. If prompt pick up is required, plan accordingly. Our research suggests that most camp consumers prefer a full-day program, which is likely why there are more full-day offerings available. But if your family prefers a half-day option, ask camps to prorate the tuition for the experience you desire. It doesn't hurt to ask!
The cost of camp tuition is sometimes a sticking point for families. Try to find quality and value. In your analysis, consider the length of the offering (is it a five-hour day or longer?); the longevity and reputation of the camp; and the expertise being provided. Many camps offer multi-week, sibling, and/or team discounts. Standardly speaking, camps offered through parks and recreation programs will be more economical than college campuses or private settings. Do note that camp-provided evaluations of your child's performance can be tricky. Remember that you are a paying customer and the camp wants you to come back. Critical feedback probably doesn't generate repeat enrollments, whereas a glowing review of your child's improvement and potential probably does. Take evaluations with a grain of salt. Referrals Most camps are summer businesses, which do not necessarily require year-round marketing. Many will advertise in local publications, such as this one. Look to see that the camp has an informative website and an administrative presence, and keep in mind that even the best camp directors often have other primary employment. Don't be wowed by flashy marketing strategies or camp counselors from glamorous places. After years of trying any number of marketing strategies, our best advertising remains word of mouth. Parents are quick to let each other know if they are satisfied -- and especially if they're not! Don't hesitate to ask other parents about their experiences with a camp you are considering. Not much makes me happier than to hear about a personal recommendation about our camp. Repeat customers are a strong indication that the camp is a worthwhile option. When we have former campers sending their children to our camp, I know we're doing something right! Countdown to summer As winter winds down and the countdown to summer begins, the timing is right to research summer camps. Most summer offerings will be posted by this month, with registration windows opening shortly thereafter. Parents still have time to explore their options and touch base with friends for referrals. My kids are already enthusiastically asking about our summer soccer camp plans. After all these years, I wouldn't have my summer any other way. I hope your children make memories during their summer camp days that will transcend generations, as our family has. Only 16 weeks until summer, but who's counting?
Dr. Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is an associate professor in the Movement Science department at Westfield State University, teaching motor development, exercise science, and other sport-related courses. She is the mother of four boys and lives with her family in Longmeadow. Writer Paula Welch contributed to this story.