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Today's Family Man: How to choose a day camp

If there is ever a reminder that a parent's calendar has nothing to do with the date at hand, let me welcome you to camp season. While most kids won't hit the pool before mid-June, their moms and dads are already mulling over which camps to send them to in mid-winter. Just check the parenting magazine camp sections and camp fairs being run all over your town, if you don't believe it. Certainly, you can hold off on choices for a few weeks or months (depending on the popularity and capacity of the camps under consideration), but the whole selection process is daunting for many people. Here are a few suggestions to make your day-camp choices easier.

1. Ask your kids
Camp should be about fun. This is a chance for children to blow off steam, try new things, and do the things they love to do in the great outdoors (or in well air-conditioned indoor places). So, ask your kid where she wants to go for camp. She may want to go with friends or to a certain camp with the activities that appeal to her. Get the lowdown from your child first, to shape everything else.

2. Ask around
Of course, your child's request is not the only criteria you need to bear in mind. You still have homework to do, such as asking other parents, even other kids about where they've gone or will go to camp. You can read brochures and Web sites that will present lots of information, but nothing tells you about social interaction, age-appropriateness of activities, and quality of staff like a fellow parent or your kid's friends. Be sure to get a few opinions since someone may have had a bad experience (or great experience) that was unusual or unrelated to one you may eventually have.

3. Take a tour
Go see the camp, preferably with your child. Ask the guide (hopefully it's the camp director or assistant director) what the philosophy of the camp is. Ask about the organization of the camp, the costs, how long it's been in business, the camper return rate, and the activities. Pay attention to how your child is reacting to the campus. If they seem miserable, that might tell you something. If they seem thrilled, you've got something. Go ahead and ask your child what they like or dislike even before you leave the tour, so you can get questions answered.

4. Ask about the staff
Whether you do the tour or not, there are a couple of vital areas of information you need. One is about the staff, including what the staff training is, what the counselor-to-camper ratio is, and what the counselor return rate is. Regarding the ratio, generally, for younger children, it should be 5 to 8 kids for every counselor and for kids over 9, it should be 8 to 10 kids for every counselor. Also, find out how old the counselors are. A camp with mostly high-school age counselors will offer a different experience than one with college-age counselors. Also, if you want to get really informed, ask what the criteria are for choosing the counselors.

5. Decide on number of days
Unless you both work five days a week, consider not sending your child to camp every day. After all, summer is a chance to hang out with your child. Some children may love camp so much that they want to go all the time, but you might still want to hold them out a day or two just to spend some quality time together. Also, many kids thrive on three days of camp per week as opposed to one or two because it offers more consistency. In addition, try spacing the days (such as Monday-Wednesday-Friday) so your child doesn't fall out of the rhythm of the camp experience.

6. Consider convenience
No matter how great that camp in the hills might be, the bus ride there and back might drain your child of all the fun they might have in the hours they're on their feet. Or, you may have such a long drive or traffic-riddled route that it makes you crazy. If distance is a problem, try to find a camp more conveniently located to your home or work.

7. Specialty camps
This is the wave of today and the future. Now, there are camps focused on science, surfing, cowboy activities, and theater arts, in addition to the traditional camp that offers swimming, arts-and-crafts, and so on. Based on your child's interests, research camps that appeal to their talents. You can also choose a camp that helps develop skills you and your child agree could use a little boost in the fun atmosphere of camp. You might want to let your child try one week at a specialty camp aside from the weeks she does a traditional camp.

8. Consider the heat
It gets real hot in many parts of the country. Be sure the camp you choose has adequate shade and air-conditioned indoor areas for when it gets scorching. Also inquire about the frequency of water breaks so kids can stay hydrated.

9. Be safe
Heat is just one safety consideration. You need to ask about medical training of the staff and the proximity of a hospital. If you tour the campus, check out the equipment for accident-proneness.

10. Check accreditation
The American Camping Association is the chief accreditor of camps nationwide. Their strict standards help make camps better and safe, justifiably comforting parents who see the ACA label on the brochures of the camps they research. They are also a fine resource for more details on what makes a camp right for your child, so I encourage you to visit their Web site. For camps out West, there is the Western Association of Independent Camps which serves a similar purpose to that of the ACA, but has a regional focus.

Good luck in your efforts to find a great camp. There are loads of them out there. And, remember, camp is not supposed to be a training ground for lawyers, doctors, and captains of industry, so don't overthink your choice. Choose fun first and last and you'll choose correctly.

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