Believe it or not, it’s time to plan where to send your kids for summer camp. With so many options out there – from traditional and specialty camps to day camps and sleepaway options – it can feel overwhelming trying to choose just the right one. Have no fear, L.A. Parent is here to help you select camps your kids will love.
“You want your child to be excited about going away, and having input will increase their excitement,” says Jill Levin of Tips on Trips and Camps, a free advisory service that works year-round to help parents find overnight camps for kids and teens. “When a client calls me to inquire about camps and I send them a list of camps to meet their criteria, I encourage them to narrow their options to two or three. Once you’ve narrowed the choices and you know you would feel comfortable with your child attending any of those camps, sit down with your child and have them watch the videos with you and maybe even do a Skype call with the director. That will give your child input and make them feel that they have participated in the decision.”
You should also look for camps that are members of the Western Association of Independent Camps. “They are not only accredited by the American Camp Association but also follow, meet or exceed more than 300 standards that relate to safety, program and camper growth and have taken the extra steps to gain membership in WAIC,” says Mike Stillson, executive director of Valley Trails Camps in Tarzana and WAIC president. “These camps also tend to be forward thinking and progressive when it comes to camper development, focusing on 21st century skills, personal growth and professionalism in the industry.”
What type of camp?
Day camps are the ideal way to keep little ones not yet ready for sleepaway camp engaged during the hectic summer months. Some even combine education in the morning (so they can retain what they learned during the school year) with afternoon play. City parks offer an abundance of activities at an affordable price and also let you pay by the week as you go. “Take them along when you sign them up, so they get a feel of where they will spend their days,” advises Belinda Jackson, executive director of Expo Center, which is run by the City of Los Angeles Dept. of Recreation and Parks and offers one of the largest summer programs in the city. “And take advantage of any opportunity to meet the camp director ahead of time.” Los Angeles and Culver City Park camps offer weekly outings to movies, amusement parks, beaches and NBA, WNBA and MLB games. YMCAs also offer affordable summer programs.
Sleepaway camp is a rite of passage for older kids and a way for them to gain independence, and there are more than 11,000 sleepaway camps in the U.S. But how do you know if your child is ready? “Has your child ever successfully had a sleepover at their grandparents’ home?” asks Levin. “Have they slept over at a friend’s house? When they hear about camp from a friend, do they get excited, and do they do well in new situations? If the answer to these questions is yes, these are good indicators they’re ready.” As you choose, think about whether your child would prefer a coed or single-sex camp. “In California, most camps are coed, but if a family is considering a camp back East, they will need to choose among coed, single sex or brother/sister camps,” says Levin. “Price and location are important factors, as well as whether your child would prefer a rustic camp or one that is more comfortable and has nicer cabins.” For more information on overnight camps, check out the free Summer Opportunities Fair 2020 for Overnight Camps and Teen Experiences from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Feb. 2 at Skirball Cultural Center.
Whether your child will sleep away or attend a day camp closer to home, think about what types of activities they might prefer. “Traditional camps offer a variety of activities as well as team building, traditional campfires, archery, low ropes, hikes and arts and crafts,” says Helen Santos, program director at Woodcraft Rangers in Downtown L.A. “At a time when children are being asked to specialize at an early age, we try to get them to explore their options and focus on creating bonds with other campers and counselors, as well as overcome fears such as doing the zipline for the first time. One of our main goals is for kids to be kids, away from technology for a week of exploration and making memories.”
Is your child a budding Broadway star? Do they dream of playing in the NBA? Then consider a “buffet” plan where you select specialty camps that feed their specific interests. Specialty camps allow for short-term growth and experiences and an opportunity to hop from one type of activity to another. They are also good for those interested in sharpening their skills in a particular area, and those who may want to try something new. “The benefits of specialty camps are that campers that have a particular interest, or a desire to learn more about a specific subject, are able to gain specific skills and be immersed in one genre,” says Stillson. “If interested, campers should mix their traditional and specialty camp experience. There is no reason to choose only one type of program to participate in.”
Teens interested in becoming a camp counselor might like a Counselor in Training program, also known as CIT, like that offered by L.A. parks and rec. “We identify and vet potential candidates starting at age 10, obtain references, assess leadership skills, grades, offer them volunteer hours and identify their talents and interests,” says Jackson. “Preparing kids early is the key to success. All CITs are safety certified and earn a salary. Parents have expressed how much the program has improved their kids’ lives.”
Three questions to ask camp directors
Along with investigating whether camps align with your child’s interests – and the location and fees align with your schedule and budget – ask camps you’re considering about these basics.
1. What is the camper-to-counselor ratio? Ensure that your child will be well supervised by finding out how many campers each adult counselor will be overseeing. At day camps, the American Camp Association recommends one counselor for every eight campers ages 6-8, 1-to-10 for ages 9-14 and 1-to-12 for campers 15-18 years old. If campers will be staying overnight, the association recommends one counselor for each six campers ages 7-8, a 1-to-8 ratio for campers ages 9-14 and a 1-to-10 ratio for ages 15 and up.
2. What are the camp’s first-aid protocols? The ACA recommends that every overnight camp have a registered nurse or licensed doctor on site, and that day camps at least have direct phone access to a doctor or nurse during camp hours. Most, if not all, of the counselors and staff at accredited camps will also have been trained in first aid and CPR and have gone through a Live Scan background check. If your child has medical needs, discuss them with the camp staff beforehand so that you are comfortable that the camp you choose will be able to meet your child’s needs.
3. Will my child be happy and comfortable with the camp staff? Though you might not always be able to meet your child’s camp counselor before camp begins, Levin recommends talking to the camp director to see how she or he answers your questions and how comfortable you are with his or her personality. “If you’re comfortable with the director, it’s likely you will like the staff, too,” she says.
Camp, size, facilities, friends who may also be attending and the types of activities offered are also important considerations. Whatever camp you select, the common denominator should be fun and lasting memories.
Sherri McGee McCovey is an L.A.-based writer, TV producer and New York Times bestselling author.