The holidays are behind us and you’ve just gotten used to the kids being back in school. Don’t get too comfortable, because now is the time to look ahead to summer break. What will you do with all those weeks when your children are, once again, on vacation?
Summer camp is the answer for many, and many camps stand ready to sign kids up for a week or more of fun (and maybe even a little learning). Parents in the know get the lowdown on these camps by visiting one of the camp fairs that pop up across the area between now and April. You can meet 50 or more camp directors in one day and have plenty of time to parse your options before the final school bell rings in June.
These fairs, however, can be overwhelming to the uninitiated. With 30-100 booths full of brochures, bunnies, robots, crafts, computers and peppy camp personnel, a thoughtful plan of attack is required.
Know Before You Go
One important thing to understand about the camp fairs taking place this spring is that they are not a fly-by experience. All last three to five hours, and you’ll need all that time. Also, you’ll want to spend the time because even though you’re there on business, these fairs can be pretty fun.
The first, Feb. 2, was the Westridge Summer Opportunities Fair in Pasadena, which longtime Westridge spokesperson Kim Kerscher says has been around since 1991. In addition to three separate exhibitor areas showcasing more than 100 camps, classes, travel programs and volunteer opportunities, the event boasts a family fair with carnival games, a DJ, an inflatable obstacle course and bounce house, a bake sale, a cake walk and – new this year – slime making. There is also food for purchase if you need a lunch break.
Families often tell Kerscher they came to do their camp shopping and weren’t expecting to hang out and have such a great time. “It’s a really gentle, nice day – especially for families with young children,” she says.
The Bel Air Camp Fair held Feb. 23 at Roscomare Elementary School also has a community vibe. In its third year, this is a much smaller fair, showcasing 25-30 handpicked camps. “We try to keep it manageable,” says Sharon Silver. She’s president of Friends of Roscomare, the parents’ group that organizes the fair. The day includes art projects, a performance by the Roscoe Roadrunner Band, food trucks, bean bag toss, hula hoops, jump ropes and other “camp kind of stuff.” “It’s a camp fair, but it’s really a community fair and it really involves the kids,” Silver says.
The three L.A. Camp Fairs – March 9 at UCLA, March 10 in Los Feliz and April 7 in Calabasas – also include moon bounces, food trucks, snow cone machines, giveaways and raffles among the 50-75 camps that will be exhibiting at each.
Plan Your Approach
One perk for parents attending one of the L.A. Camp Fairs is the chance to pre-game the fair by scoping out exhibiting camps ahead of time online. You can visit various camps’ websites (linked from lasummercamps.com) and make a list of those you don’t want to miss.
You can use the program guide and map you receive on arrival at the Westridge fair in a similar fashion. “I recommend spending a few minutes perusing that and plotting a course to some of the key camps that you’d like to visit,” Kerscher says. You might be able to get this done while the kids are in the bounce house or making slime.
But Kerscher advises families to also spend time “just wandering a bit.” She says families often come with specific ideas about the type of camp they’d like to visit, but then end up stumbling upon something entirely different – something that turns out to be a perfect fit for their child.
Just wandering is probably the best way to see the Bel Air fair, which is much smaller and is curated for the local area. “We really seek out camps that we know are appropriate for the families in the area,” Silver says. “We reach out to camps that we know other people have had great experiences with, that we’ve heard really great things about.” The goal is that each exhibit is worth checking out. “Take the time to stop at all the booths,” Silver urges. “We keep it small enough that you’re not overwhelmed.”
Time to Hit the Booths
When booth hopping at camp fairs, everyone has a job. Yours is to talk to camp personnel, and your child’s is to dive into the camp activities on display.
“When the parents are talking to the camp director, we want the prospective camper to be having a blast doing an activity,” says Eric Naftulin, owner of Aloha Beach Camp and organizer of L.A. Camp Fairs. At L.A. Camp Fairs, Naftulin has seen a nature camp with animals to pet and circus camps offering gymnastics and games. “Most programs want to give families as close to an exact experience of what the child will be doing at camp in the summer as possible,” he explains.
At the Westridge fair, Kerscher has has seen arts and crafts, science experiments, robots and even archery. “There’s a camp that comes every year that is very, very popular because he always has bunnies,” she says. “Going around to the different stations is really a fun day for kids.”
While your kids are busy having fun – and Silver says she’s even seen campers on surf boards at the Bel Air fair – you, dear parent, can swoop in with your carefully thought out (and written out) questions. Take Naftu- lin’s advice and hit the American Camping Association website for lists of what to ask.
Camps will all have someone there to answer. “They often bring camp directors and other staff that develop the programs, run the programs, have been involved with the camp for many, many years,” says Silver. These are folks who can really explain to parents what they offer and give you a feel for the camp.
“Really make sure you take advantage of talking to the camp personnel, because they’re really knowledgeable,” advises Kerscher. It’s why, in fact, so many parents choose to hit the camp fairs rather than just research camps online. “I’ve heard parents say, ‘You know, with the internet you wouldn’t think you’d need this anymore,’” Kerscher says. But there’s just no way you could discover and research this many camps, plus talk to the folks who run them and try some camp activities, in just a few hours from your keyboard
“As a parent, you often think, ‘I know what’s out there.’ But you don’t really, because things keep changing,” says Silver. “And there’s actually options that have been out there for a long time that somehow you just never knew about.”
You also might score a deal or win a prize. Westridge has a raffle this year, free to enter, for a $250 gift certificate that is good toward any camp at the fair. The winner could combine this with promotions that an individual camp is offering and save some serious cash.
Bel Air Camp Fair and the L.A. Camp Fairs have scavenger hunts. Families who visit enough booths can win prizes or be entered into drawings for discounts or free camp sessions.
The aftermath of camp fair is also important. “When you get home is the real time to do your due diligence,” says Naftulin, adding that your kids are the place to start. “Talk to your child about what they enjoyed about the camp fair. Did any of the camps they found out about appeal to them?” Next, narrow down the big list of camps and pile of brochures you’ve collected into a small list. Contact your favorites and talk to staff on the phone, arrange a tour or make plans to visit an open house.
Naftulin points out that finding a camp your child loves is worth the work because it turns summer into a chance to make friends, learn new skills and develop self-confidence. “I just want kids to go to camp somewhere, and that’s what this is about,” he says. “I’m just a big believer in the camp experience.”
Have a good camp fair experience, and you’re on your way.
Camp Fairs 2019
Westridge Summer Opportunities Fair: 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 2, Westridge School, 324 Madeline Dr., Pasadena; westridge.org.
Bel Air Camp Fair: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 23, Roscomare Elementary School, 2425 Roscomare Rd., Bel Air; roscomareroadschool.net.
L.A. Camp Fair – UCLA: Noon-3 p.m. March 9, Pauley Pavilion, UCLA; lasummercamps.com.
L.A. Camp Fair – Los Feliz: Noon-3 p.m. March 10, Friendship Auditorium, 3201 Riverside Dr., L.A.; lasummercamps.com.
L.A. Camp Fair – Calabasas: Noon-3 p.m. April 7, A.C. Stelle Middle School, 22450 Mulholland Hwy., Calabasas: lasummercamps.com.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.