Summer camps are the antidote to brain drain—they keep our kids active, engaged and social. They also provide an important child care service while you’re busy managing the home, working a second job or participating in continuing education during summer break.
Municipalities, school districts, places of worship, scouts and other nonprofit organizations, as well as for-profit providers, offer an amazing variety of sleepaway and day camps. Many camps vary the activities throughout the day, while others specialize in areas such as performing arts, STEM subjects or outdoor adventure; and still others are hyper-focused on a single topic, such as computer programming, basketball or even chess.
Children can learn spy techniques at Mad Science Camp, join a rock band in Bach to Rock Camp or enjoy a variety of adventures through YMCA camp. Choosing camps that your kids like, and that you can afford, takes serious consideration and smart strategy. Here are some suggestions to facilitate your search.
Where to find fun camps
First things first: Start looking early—late winter really isn’t too soon. Popular camps may fill up by spring. You’ve probably heard about appealing programs through word-of-mouth, but if not, find out where your kids’ friends go. Or, ask for recommendations in your social media community, such as a local parents group on Facebook. You can search online, but save time by refining your query and using specific terms in quotes. Instead of typing “San Diego summer camps” into the search bar, try “summer theater camp” “middle school” “San Diego.”
Other credible sources to find camps include:
- School district websites
- County, city or town websites (check under the parks and recreation department)
- Your local newspaper or parenting magazine (many offer a summer camp guide, in print or online)
- News sources from your local and regional scouting organizations (emails, websites, social media pages)
- Church bulletin or the newsletter published by your house of worship
How to choose the right camp
There are a couple things to consider: which camps are best for your child and which work best for you. First and foremost, you want to ensure that the camp you choose provides a safe environment, with qualified counselors. The American Camp Association recommends asking the camp director these questions about the counselors, because they have a lot of direct contact with campers: How old are they? What training do they receive? What is the counselor-to-camper ratio? Who is authorized to discipline campers, and what is the procedure?
You should also think about your child’s temperament. Would your kid like a general camp offering an ever-changing activity schedule or a themed camp? Your son or daughter may love the idea of a LEGO camp, for example, but would he or she get tired of working with them all day?
“When we first started doing camps, my oldest would go to single-week, special-interest camps, like magic, filmmaking and Minecraft,” says Melissa Billings, a 5th-grade teacher in Chappaqua, New York. “I learned that a week is not long enough for my introverted kid to acclimate and get to know other kids.”
Some children may also be more comfortable with friends or siblings in the same camp, and that can be a boon to parents as well. The convenience of carpooling, for instance, can’t be understated. You’ll save time on driving and money on gas. There’s also a value to your free time while they’re out of the house.
“My summer break is the only time I have to get big house projects done,” says Kelly Stylarek, a special education teacher in Elmont, New York. “I need both my kids to be in camp at the same time, or else it really isn’t worth it.”
Beyond their needs, think about your budget. You may be fortunate to live in a school district that runs a free camp, such as the Summer Dreamers Academy in Pittsburgh or in a parish that offers a Vacation Bible School for less than $50 per week. You might even be willing to splurge for a premium camp experience, such as the 1-week iD Tech Robotics camp held on the University of Michigan campus (and many others) that starts at $849.
Other considerations: Is it less expensive to send your kids to a 4-week camp or 4 separate weeklong camps? It’s certainly easier to register once. Are there additional costs, such as supplies, field trips or meals? How do the camp’s hours fit into your daily schedule? Do you need a camp that offers before and after care—and if so, how much extra does it cost?
Where and how to save on camp fees
Here are a few tips to save on camp expenses:
1. Early registration
Camps want to fill up as early as possible, so they often offer discounts of 5% to 10% off the full tuition price to encourage early registration. As soon as a summer program ends, you may be able to sign up for the following year, and this is a smart strategy, not just for the savings but also to save a spot in a popular program that fills to capacity. Beware, though: Make sure you read and understand the deposit-refund policy. You will want to be able to get your money back if your plans change.
2. Other discounts
If multiple siblings will attend, look for family discounts. You could save up to 50% on fees for the additional kid(s). You may also qualify for referral credits if you convince friends to send their kids, too. Some camps will offer scholarships to children from low-income households as well.
3. Free tuition for staff families
If you work during the summer to make extra money, find out about camp counselor positions. In exchange for your hours—or as an employee benefit—your kids may be able to attend the camp for free.
Have a backup plan
Newer, smaller camps can be canceled at the last minute due to low enrollment, so don’t be left with nowhere to send your kids. If you do need a Plan B, note that annual camps run by town recreation departments are generally a “sure thing” and may take new enrollments up until the program’s first day.
Knowing this, here’s a final tip. Don’t tell your kids about the amazing camps you’ve registered them for ahead of time to prevent disappointment if something happens. Make it a fun annual tradition to reveal the surprise of where they’re going on the last day of school!