The six New England states, where summer camp began 150 years ago, offer an array of day and overnight camp opportunities that are unparalleled anywhere in the world. You name the interest or need for a child, and you can find a camp that is a great fit. Yet there are so many variables and parameters to consider, camp-seeking can feel a little daunting.
One of the most important things camp seekers should know: include your child in this process! (A 3-year-old day camper won’t be able to participate as much as a 14-year-old, but it is clear that campers like to have some say in the final decision.)
Questions to explore with your child
Who? Who is going to camp? First timer? Heading to camp solo or with a friend?
What? Day or overnight? Small or large? General or specialty? Program preferences? Lessons and instruction? Level of competition? What does the child want to learn? What does the parent want the child to learn? What activities are already loved by this child?
Where? Near home or work for day camp? Within a certain number of miles or in a particular state for overnight camp? How will your camper travel to camp — by bus, car, foot, or plane?
When? Camp session lengths vary from partial week to full summer (7 to 8 weeks). In your child’s summer plans, how many weeks of camp would be ideal? Can you be flexible about session length? (This can expand your options.) Are there certain weeks your family needs camp coverage? When is school out? Many school-age children attend both day and overnight camps during the same summer.
Limit your camp search non-negotiables to the essentials. Know what’s most important for your camper and for you and where you can compromise on variables such as session length, programming options, and price.
If attending camp is a new concept to the entire family, and if the child doesn’t have strong feelings about a program, consider a general camp program and one that is designed for new campers. Camps do an excellent job of exposing children to a broad array of programming options so they can discover what they love doing at camp. It’s common for a child to sign up for a camp because there will be a certain activity; it’s equally common for them to come home with a new favorite activity — something they were introduced to at camp!
A word about specialization: Just because a program is called “general” or “traditional” doesn’t mean the child cannot focus on an area of interest or skill. Depending on how the camp is organized, there are many that allow campers to focus on a particular activity, building skills and passion for it, and still make it possible for the child to experience other camp programming — the best of both worlds.
Talk with people about your finalist camps. Attend open houses and in-person events to talk with camp reps after reviewing all their materials in print and online. Ask for a list of parent references and base the questions you ask them on the most important aspects of your search:
* Are the counselors stand-up people?
* How well are children supervised?
* How about safety?
* How is the food?
* What did their children report about camp? Listen to camp stories from everyone about finalist camps.
Focus on the outcomes. When I talk with day and overnight campers and their parents, I hear clearly that children are thrilled by making new friends, learning new skills, and having the chance to experience childhood at its finest. Summer camp is much more than a list of the activities offered. Summer camps are worlds created exclusively for children’s optimal development. Time spent at day and overnight camp fosters social and emotional learning, life-skill-building, and the ultimate peer experience — it boosts independence as it provides group belonging.
Bette Bussel is executive director of the American Camp Association, New England. The organization supports camp experiences, educates camp professionals and staff, consults on camp best practices, and advocates for camp quality. For additional camp information and resources in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont visit acanewengland.org.
Your Camp Search Shortcut
To ease your search for the perfect summer camp, visit American Camp Association, New England. There you will find resources to explore and questions to ask yourself, your child, and the camps you consider. You will also discover advice about how to frame your summer camp search.
You can also use the organization’s comprehensive online camp search tool, FindACamp, which takes you directly to the websites of the camps on your search results page. When using FindACamp, you might not get any results if you list too many key criteria; they may be canceling each other out. Try several separate searches using just one or two criteria to get more results.