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How to Pick a Summer Camp

There are more than 8,000 summer camps in the U.S., offering everything from canoeing to computers. Take some time with your kids to decide which summer camp is right for them and how long they should be away from home.

By John Casey
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

Nearly every successful summer-camp experience requires lots and lots of sunblock, a flashlight, and a bathing suit. But long before you cross things off your child's packing list, self-evaluation of your goals will go a long way to ensuring that you pick the right summer camp for your child, say camp experts.

"A good camp experience begins with self-evaluation," says Jeffrey Solomon, MSW, executive director of the National Camp Association (NCA), a non-profit organization. "Parents need to ask themselves what their goals are for their child. There are so many types of camps out there -- sports, arts, nature, computers -- that to make the right choice requires knowing exactly what you want from a camp."

Solomon says that some of the questions parents need to ask include how much time they want their child to spend away from home, how much the camp stay will cost, and whether a general-interest camp or a specialty camp that focuses on a specific activity is needed.

"There are more than 8,000 summer camps in the U.S.," says Solomon. "That's great because it means there is a camp for every need and every interest. But setting goals can very quickly narrow the choices down to a reasonable number to deal with."

Some summer camps cater to children with special medical needs such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

"When a medical disorder is involved, such as ADHD, diabetes, or depression, the parents may want to talk to their doctor to determine whether the child's symptoms require a special-needs camp. Sometimes, if the symptoms are not severe, a general camp may be the better option."

The NCA's web site, at www.summercamp.org, has a free, question-and-answer feature that allows parents to profile their needs, goals, and other specifics such as camp location and cost. The web ite matches the parent profile with summer camps that most closely meet the specifications.

How Long to Stay at Summer Camp?

Most experts agree that children under 7 are too young for sleep-away camp. And a general-interest camp is best for children under 10.

"Of course, that's flexible," says Christopher Thurber, PhD, co-author of Summer Camp Handbook, and a spokesperson for the American Psychological Association. "In my experience, the lower end for a one-week sleep-away camp is 7-years-old. But even some 10-year-olds may need a shorter session."

Years ago, a seven- or eight-week camp was the norm. Now, much shorter stays are common, as are stays at several camps.

"Most camps use a two-week session," says Thurber, who also is a faculty member at the Phillips Exeter School in New Hampshire. "Now, there are many more specialty camps, and kids are interested in getting a variety of experiences, so they may go to several camps over the season for shorter stays. They're at soccer camp for two weeks, then they are at computer camp for a week."

The costs for camp vary as widely as the type of summer camps available. In 1999, the average cost for a week's stay at a non-profit camp was $250 to $800, says Thurber. Costs are higher at for-profit camps, where a week's stay runs from $350 to $1,200.

"Generally, the average is about $500 per week," he says.

Dealing With Homesickness at Summer Camp

"About 95% of all boys and girls between 8 and 16 experience some feelings of homesickness on at least two days of a two-week stay at camp," says Thurber.

While younger kids are more likely to be homesick, the better predictor of whether any child will experience homesickness is the kinds of experiences the child has had with previous overnight stays, such as weekends with grandparents or sleepovers at friends' houses.

"Avoiding homesickness all comes down to the child's attitude," says Thurber, whose scientific work focuses on how kids deal with separation at camp. "That's why it is so very important to include the child in the decision process about a camp. Kids who feel forced to go to a camps are much more likely to feel homesick than are kids who feel like they had a chance to influence the decision process."

Another important aspect of avoiding homesickness is to talk about it.

"There's a conventional idea that if you mention homesickness, you'll just make them focus on it," says Thurber. "But it doesn't work that way. Have an open discussion with your kids about how they feel about going away. What's most important here is that the parent gives the message that he or she believes the child can handle the stress of being away, that the child is competent at handling temporary, uncomfortable feelings."

Thurber says one mistake many parents make is in having "pick-up deals" with kids. "They say, 'If you feel homesick, I will come and get you.'" Says Thurber. "But that sends the message that you think the child is not competent to deal with an important life challenge. That's not a good message to send."

If you've involved you child along the way, they may have some anxiety, but they aren't likely to feel frightened for long.

"Parents should also make sure the child gets some practice time at sleepovers," says Thurber. "Spend a weekend at the grandparents or have a sleepover at a friend's house."

Afterward, parents can talk with a child about how they felt being away and what made them feel better if they were homesick.

Originally published May 20, 2002.

Medically updated March 12, 2003.

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