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Finding a Fit in Five Easy Steps: How to Find a Great Summer Camp

We want to help you find a great sleepaway summer camp for your child; because it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed.

Whether she’s a first-time camper looking for something traditional, or a seasoned veteran looking for an ambitious travel or service program, there are countless options on the market.

It’s daunting to dive in and begin weighing the relative merits of one versus another if you’re not well-acquainted with the industry.

To make matters appear all the more fraught, stir into the mix the natural anxieties every parent tends to experience when the child’s well-being and development are under consideration. A mediocre camp just won’t do, and it’s easy to get so stymied by your own weighty expectations as to risk total indecisiveness.

Ultimately, however, choosing a summer camp needn’t be a headache or a nightmare.

All it takes to find a promising opportunity for your child or teen is a rational, methodical approach: one step at a time.

Let us help you demystify the process. This guide breaks down each step.

Introduction

A few things to remember from the outset.

First, involve your child or teen in the search and the decision-making as much as possible — it can be hugely rewarding.

Children and teens are more likely to feel motivated about camp if they feel actively engaged in its selection. Also, constructive input from them makes your job that much easier.

Furthermore, the research and outreach involved can serve as good practice for both of you in advance of the college application adventures to come.

In the guide, we provide a few examples to give you better understanding. Please understand that these are just examples, not endorsements.

Finally, keep in mind that the methodology spelled out below can result in the identification of a camp at any point along the way. If you hone in on a camp early on, go with it! No need to carry on with the research — you’ve completed your goal.

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Step 1: Ask the Questions

Your preliminary self-questionnaire will be a major guide through the selection process, helping to clarify your goals and expectations as you move forward. Parents who take these questions seriously save time down the road.

What Does She Like to Do?

Consider how your teen or tween most likes to spend her time. Is she interested in travel? Community service? Athletics? The sciences? Unstructured hanging-out-with-friends? Just having fun?

Are there particular skills she’d like to learn, or better develop? Which does she prefer: repetition and routine, or adventure and challenge?

Whatever her interests, there’s undoubtedly a summer camp well-suited to her.

What Are My Goals for His Summer?

Consider your own goals for the summer.

What do you hope he will accomplish or take away from summer camp? Do you want him to challenge himself by exploring something completely outside his normal range of experience? Would you like him to learn a specific new skill? Develop and explore a sense of independence and responsibility?

Perhaps you have no greater desire than for the summer to be fun and stimulating — a memorable adventure.

While it’s never wise (or terribly productive) to saddle a venture with too many expectations, brainstorming general goals will be useful for steering your search, as well as for evaluating the summer after it’s over as a guide for future decisions.

What Are My Child's Needs?

Summer camp may be partly about trying new things, but it must also satisfy your daughter’s needs for security and contentedness.

Evaluate what she requires to be happy, including the little creature comforts that keep her centered. Does she surround herself with students older than she? Younger? Or just kids her own age?

Reflect on whether she chafes in the face of too much adult supervision and organized activity, or whether such structure brings out the best in her.

Side Note: Is My Child Ready for Sleepaway?

This guide was designed to help families identify the right sleepaway camp. Are you sure you’re looking for sleepaway?

Before you begin this quest, be sure to ask yourself — and your child — whether he’s ready for overnight in the first place. That means taking into account factors such as social maturity, degree of independence, and others.

But weigh it against this: the fundamental purpose of many summer camps is fostering such skills. There are plenty of options for children who have shown difficulty relating to peers or teachers, or who are exceptionally attached to their parents.

If you still can’t decide whether he’s ready, you may want to start with this question: what are sleepovers at his friends’ houses like?

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Step 2: Build the List

All right: time to start building your list!

For manageability’s sake, ten camps should be the absolute max you take under consideration; in excess of that is too many. Shoot for 5-10 (hopefully closer to five).

How you go about amassing a list of potential camps depends on your preferred style of research. We’ll cover both online and in-person investigations. While each has its merits, often it's a combination approach that bears the most fruit.

Online

You’ve got two options with Internet research: search engine or online directory.

Search Engines

(If you’re comfortable with Google searches, skip this).

Retrieving information via search engines is a science that takes practice to perfect. You’ll likely have the most luck tracking down relevant summer camps by using so-called long-tail keyword phrases, which are strings of tightly focused search terms.

For example, rather than search with the wide net cast by “summer camps” — a short-tail keyword phrase — use constructions such as “sports camp in New Hampshire,” “summer travel program with homestay,” “traditional summer camp with a pool,” and other specific and detailed queries.

Use the answers that came out of Step 1 to develop your keyword phrases. The longer you can make your keyword phrases, the more apt they are to uncover camps that meet your criteria. It may take some adjusting of your search terms to produce satisfactory results, so keep at it.

Here's a hint: On a search engine results page, scroll to the bottom of the screen and look for “Searches related to [your keyword phrase]”. There, you will find a half dozen alternatives to your keyword phrase. Sometimes, just following these related searches will be all you’ll need. Here's a screenshot of searches related to "sleepaway summer camp in pa".

Online Directories

You may find it more rewarding to focus your searches within organized online directories of summer camps. These resources allow you to search by multiple attributes such as type of camp, cost, activity, and dates.

When you’re using a directory, bear in mind that the information was probably provided by the summer camp, or pulled from the camp's Web site (unless otherwise stated). Generally, you will not find third-party advice on these Web sites.

Example: American Camp Association

The American Camp Association (ACA) has been serving the camp community for over one hundred years. It has a database of 3,000 camps to choose from. You can narrow your search by activity, geography, cost and many more.

Find a Camp | American Camp Association

You can also track down reviews of sleepaway summer camps. There are a couple of ratings sites and discussion forums to help you parse the options. (But take the comments with a grain of salt.)

Example: CampRatingz.com

CampRatingz is a directory of ratings, reviews, and recommendations for summer camps and overnight camps throughout the U.S. and Canada. It is a member of the Ratingz Network, a place to read and post anonymous, independent ratings and reviews of places and services in your community.

Tom Rated Camps | CampRatingz.com

In-Person

You may be someone who still prefers a little direct, face-to-face interaction when making inquiries. Good options for this track include:

  1. Camp consultants
  2. Camp fairs
  3. Friends and family

Camp Consultants

A camp consultant can serve as an excellent means of connecting you and your student to a great summer camp.

Such an authority is an expert in the industry, familiar with the breadth of the offerings. They have years of experience and have visited hundreds of camps. They’re pros.

There are two kinds of camp consultants: educational consultants, which you pay a fee to, and referral agents, which camps pay a commission to.

Educational Consultants: You Pay a Fee

You pay for a fee for the services of educational consultants (i.e. referrals are free to camps). Often times, these consultants belong to membership organizations like the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA). IECA, an internationally recognized professional organization, certifies independent educational consultants who advise on everything from summer camps to college admissions.

Example: Jeanette B. Spires & Associates consults regarding college, boarding school and residential treatment. Jeannette helps a family explore options from a broad range of experiences. Using the advice of those who know the student best along with professional evaluations, an educational consultant works for the family to determine appropriate fit. An ongoing relationship supports the student and family as needed.

Referral Agents: Camps Pay a Commission

A second type of camp consultant is a referral agent. Their services are free to you because they receive a commission from the camp where your son or daughter is placed.

If this sounds interesting to you, we've put together a list of eleven referral agents for you. Check it out.

Here's a little industry gossip for you: educational consultants (the first type) tend to be disdainful of referral agents (the second type). If we understand it correctly, the rationale is that referral agents pretend to work for families when they actually work for camps, because camps are paying commissions and families pay nothing.

We find this criticism unfair. Sure, referral agents are paid commissions by camps, but it's not like it's a secret. Plus, referral agents are ubiquitous in our industry and they have been making families happy for decades.

Example: Tips on Trips and Camps has consultants across the country: Baltimore, D.C., Philadelphia, Princeton, New York City, Westchester, Connecticut, Boston, Florida, Chicago, St. Louis, Dallas and California. And three internationally: Brussels, Barcelona and France. Tips offers a balanced perspective of camps based on site visits to hundreds of camps, interviews with directors and years of feedback from past participants.

Camp Fairs

The second type of in-person investigation is camp fairs. At camp fairs, representatives from a wide variety of summer programs are on hand to answer questions. Fairs can be great resources (in other industries these are sometimes called trade shows or expos).

Fairs are generally held between autumn and spring, often in school gymnasiums or community buildings.

If a camp fair is organized by an educational consultant, you’ll get professional guidance; but you won’t get that expertise if the event is held as a service to the community by the PTA or similar organization.

Example: "The much anticipated Scarsdale High School Summer Activities Fair was hosted by the PTA on Wednesday night December 3rd. Over fifty vendors participated in the event in the hope of wooing students to their summer and gap year programs at the PTA's biggest fundraiser of the year. They offered every type of activitiy and adventure imaginable including travel, college experiences, sports, community service, drama, language immersion, art and more."


Image credit: Scarsdale10583.com

Friends and Family

Don’t neglect the input of your (and your child’s) social and family circles.

Perhaps your son's friends have older siblings who’ve gone to camp before. If so, seek out those parents and ask for recommendations.

Some of your own relatives may have had experience with summer camps, too. Take advantage of the firsthand experience and advice most people are more than happy to give.

Following recommendations from people you know and trust is usually a great bet. (Just bear in mind any differences between the students under consideration.)

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Step 3: Narrow the List

After your preliminary investigations, you’ve hopefully got a healthy list of promising-sounding camps. Now it’s time to start paring down the field of options.

Dig a Little Deeper

If you haven’t already, look for deal-breakers that become glaringly obvious upon closer inspection.

Camps may make themselves ineligible by an inconveniently distant location, by a hefty price tag, or by dates incompatible with your schedule.

Scrutinize each camp's Web site. Request supplementary information, such as brochures or videos, to delve more deeply into their offerings.

Remove from consideration those that least accord with the expectations you’ve laid out in the earlier steps, and aim to shave down your list to 3-6 possibilities (hopefully closer to three).

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Step 4: Make the Inquiries

At this point in the journey, you’ve come a long way. You have a better understanding of the industry as a whole. You have articulated your goals, built a solid list of prospects, briefly looked into the camps, and narrowed your list to a workable number.

Now you have 3-6 potential summer camps under examination. It’s time to pick up the phone. You need to seriously evaluate the camps, and to do that, you’ll want to talk to the directors.

Consider these conversations interviews: opportunities both to flesh out your understanding of the nitty-gritty details and, more subjectively, to clarify your “gut feeling” about a camp and its management.

In this section, we’ll discuss how to go about these inquiries, and how to analyze them once they’re done. The idea is, by the end of this step, to further whittle down your list of camps to 2-4 camps.

Hone in on Details Important to You

What follows are aspects of a given summer camp you may want to ask about in your discussion with the director.

Bear in mind, this is simply a guide. Depending on your unique concerns, you will only inquire about some of these topics, and you may be inspired to bring up some that aren’t on the list.

We’ve broken up the list into four categories: people, health and safety, facilities and approach.

People

First we'll look at the people. That includes directors, summer staff, staff training, and camper-to-staff ratio.

Directors

Find out more about the directors themselves. You might ask them to describe their personal histories with summer camp, their professional background, and their own aspirations for the camps they oversee. Attitude reflects leadership. This is your chance to get a feel for the person at the helm of your child's camp, so don’t be shy!

Summer Staff and Staff Training

Learn more about who fills out the staff roster in the summertime: What are the ages of the employees, for example, and what sort of training do they receive? What kinds of duties do staff members carry out and how are they delegated? What do the staff do the rest of the year? Are they students? Teachers? Why are they free for the summer?

Camper-to-Staff Ratio

The ratio between staff and students in a summer camp can make a significant difference in terms of the overall experience, so find out how it breaks down.

As you ask around, you’ll begin to get a feel for the range. Are cooks and maintenance included in the ratio? What about CITs (counselors in training — older returning students)?

Health and Safety

The well-being of your child is obviously your foremost concern, so ask about the camp's safety and emergency protocols.

This is a good time to discuss allergies, prescription medications, and other special medical conditions, if relevant to your child.

If you’re considering an international travel program, what is the quality of the local health centers? How is health insurance handled?

In a similar vein, find out who the camp's medical staff are.

Accreditation by ACA

Inquire whether the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA).

This is a voluntary accreditation, and there are no levels or degrees of accreditation to keep track of: a camp is either accredited or it's not.

Usually, if a camp is accredited, you will see this image prominently displayed on its Web site and materials:

Accreditation means that a camp has met or surpassed over 300 standards of health, safety and program quality.

The ACA accredits one in five camps. You are more likely to find accreditation at residential and day camps than on travel programs.

Food

Ask about the menu: whether there are options, where the ingredients are sourced from, whether special dietary needs can be adequately met, and how the meals are scheduled and conducted.

Facilities

Inquire about the available facilities and infrastructure to get a firmer context for its daily activities. What’s the layout like?

Creature Comforts

What does the camp provide in terms of creature comforts? Creature comforts can sometimes help alleviate homesickness.

Sleeping Arrangements

More basic but still very important questions: Where do the students sleep? Do adults sleep with the students or separately? If it’s a travel program, how are roommates decided?

Approach

Lots to cover here.

Philosophy

A particular summer camp may have its guiding philosophy prominently displayed on Web sites or brochures, but inquire about it more keenly with the director. It’s easy to accept a pithy credo at face value — or to outright ignore it — but a topnotch camp takes its anchoring tenets seriously, and will be able to spell out why and how it came to formulate them.

Conflict Management

As any parent or teacher well knows, conflict between children or teens is inevitable (and an important teaching opportunity whenever it does occur). Ask how such incidents are handled: Who gets involved? What sorts of punishments or penalties are meted out, and who decides?

Activities

What’s available for children to do during their summer stay? You’ve likely already turned up a list of featured activities for the given camp, but it’s worth seeking more information to gauge how varied the camp's offerings are. For a camp with a special defining focus on certain pursuits — such as particular sports or wilderness craft — you might ask what other types of recreation are provided.

Choice and Structure

Speaking of activities, it’s worthwhile to find out the relative freedom of choice a child has on a given day at camp. Included in this line of inquiry is the availability of unstructured time: How often are kids given the chance to do their own thing? The balance between structured and free time is a defining aspect of any summer camp, so strive to clarify it.

Summer Communication

How often can he call home? How often can you call him? Will you get any mid-summer updates from the directors?

Technology Policy

It’s important to find a technology policy that fits with your philosophy (including a rationale and an implementation strategy).

Hone in on the few points that are important to you and your family, and stick to those. You’re just trying to reduce your number of options to 2-4.

Application Process

Be sure to ask about a camp's application procedure and timetable. The process may involve an interview, either in-person or remotely via telephone or Skype. It may involve a written application, either online or via postal mail.

Remember: You’re the customer. Camps want your business and should answer your questions as thoroughly and accurately as possible. Don't let them control the conversation.

Be firm and focused in your inquiries, and convey your timeframe — i.e., when you’d like to make your final decision. You also should feel free to mention other camps you’re considering.

Indeed, this can be a good way of better understanding a camp's unique qualities. If the director you’re talking with knows some of the other camps on your list (bear in mind, there are thousands out there) she can explicitly spell out what makes hers different — and in doing so, she may give you some insight into her professionalism.

Afterwards

Reflect on your conversation with the director. How was your personal connection? Did she fully answer your questions and seem genuinely interested in your child? Weigh your gut response at this point: your instinct is as valid as anything else.

After you’ve spoken with representatives from each camp, has a front-runner emerged? Often one or another camp has by now elevated itself above the rest.

But if you’re still unsure, don’t worry.

Side Note: Overcoming Resistance

Many kids who otherwise seem poised for a summer experience may show resistance to the idea. Commonly, such lack of enthusiasm stems from one of two basic underlying causes.

First, one thing or another may be tethering her to home — a boyfriend, for example, or the quest for a driver’s license. Is there something she doesn’t want to miss?

Second, it’s typical to be fearful of the summer camp experience: She may be anxious about social rejection, even active bullying, or about the perceived rigors of camp. The separation from parents is often an overarching anxiety, particularly for those who’ve never spent much time away from home.

If you can diagnose the root cause of her opposition to going away, it will be much easier to deal with. And, this insight might influence the kind of camp you seek out.

Take a moment to evaluate how best to discuss and overcome the roadblock. While some issues may be adequately tackled in the home, a director may well be able to settle others. Remember, a director is experienced in communicating with teens and tweens, and deeply familiar with their typical concerns with regard to participating in a summer camp.

What About Day Camp? If you’re still sensing resistance, you may want to consider day camp as an option. Day camp can be an easier commitment for the child or teen to make — less daunting than being away from home for a period of time. And it can also accommodate the summer plans he refuses to miss. Additionally, there are advantages to day camp, like developing friendships that are local and more easily sustained after the summer.

Step 5: Apply

You’ve reduced the field of contenders to 2-4. All of these camps meet your standards for the criteria set out during your inquiries. You’d be thoroughly satisfied if he attended any one of them.

That’s a good place to be!

Now that you understand the application process for each of the remaining camps on the list, it’s time to apply.

As you apply, consider requesting references from the director. Family references are standard in the industry. They are an opportunity to hear from other parents, and your son’s or daughter’s opportunity to hear from other campers.

You can expect these references to be positive — even glowing; still, a few pointed questions will help you flesh out important differences between the camps under consideration. (Try to avoid asking yes / no questions.)

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The Big Moment

You’re there — all that remains is the final decision. This can be easy or hard, depending on whether the top-tier camps are neck-and-neck with one another or a clear front-runner has distinguished itself.

Here’s how generally to proceed to make your ultimate selection.

If She Knows the Answer

If she knows the answer, you're done! This is the simplest scenario, of course. If she is leaning in one direction, go with it — your reward will be months of your daughter’s excitement.

If She Has No Idea

If she still isn’t sure which camp to commit to, sit back and reflect on the application process and what’s been revealed during it. Did she particularly connect with a certain director?

It can be helpful to return to your initial notes as you mull this over. Look back at those preliminary thoughts you sketched out in Step 1: What did you set out looking for in a summer camp in the first place?

It’s not necessarily easy to choose between worthy competing camps that all seem to conform excellently to your expectations, but keep this in mind: having gone through a comprehensive selection process such as you have, there’s really not a wrong decision at this point. The truth is, there’s more than one camp offering her the summer of her life anticipation.

Feedback

That's it! If you have feedback for us, or suggestions for improving this guide, you are welcome to email us. If not, thank you for reading and we hope you have a great summer!

-Maddie, Louise and Matt