- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

Imagine this: It is midsummer. The children are tired of the pool and overly familiar with the freedom of a school-free schedule. Suggestions from parents are met with an enraged whine of "that's boring." Then an argument starts.

This is why summer camp was invented.

"Summer camp was one of the defining activities of my childhood," says Catherine Hoyler, an Arlington mother of four children. On her first date with her husband, she sang her summer camp theme song in a burst of enthusiasm as she unfolded her past to the man she eventually would marry.

"It was the first time I was ever away from home," says Mrs. Hoyler, who spent two summers at Camp Wyonegonic, an all-girls resident camp in Denmark, Maine. "The counselors were wonderful. It was very confidence-building."

Now two of her daughters have gone to Camp Wyonegonic and have had equally happy experiences. Her second-youngest daughter, Georgia, who is 11, says she found a best friend at the camp during the three weeks she stayed there last summer. "I knew none of the girls when I first got there, but it was really easy to make friends," she says.

Picking the right camp

The Hoylers were lucky. Mrs. Hoyler was familiar with the camp setting and quality of counselors. Even though the camp was a long distance from her home, she was secure in knowing her girls would be supervised carefully in a friendly, safe environment.

Evie Hirsch had a less satisfying experience when she sent her son to camp 20 years ago before the proliferation of program choices. She chose a traditional camp that had been recommended highly by friends and neighbors whose children had attended it. Her son's friends also were spending the summer there. Unfortunately, it was a bad choice.

"He hated it," says Mrs. Hirsch, who runs a business called Student Summers, which helps parents choose camps for their children. "My son is artistic," she says. "He needed more freedom and creative choices." It was while researching other possibilities for her son that Mrs. Hirsch got the idea to start a camp consulting business.

Mrs. Hirsch's company (www.campadvice.com) is one of many consulting services that parents can use to search for an appropriate camp that matches their child's interests and fits into the family budget. The advice usually is free camps pay a commission for each referral they get from the consulting companies.

"We check the facilities and meet with the directors and staff to learn the goals of the camp," Mrs. Hirsch says. "When we meet with parents, we help them narrow down the choices and then provide suggestions for appropriate programs."

To help the decision-making process, camp counselors recommend that parents first decide on the type of camp they want resident or day. Then the following questions should be posed to camp directors:

* What percentage of campers return each year? Ask for references from families whose children have attended the camp.

What is the background of camp counselors? How many children are the counselors responsible for supervising? Camps that attract counselors who attended as children are likely to have solid, well-managed programs.

* How are the facilities maintained? Is the equipment up to date and in good repair?

* What is the daily routine? Some camps have a highly structured schedule, while others offer a variety of choices. It also is helpful to determine whether the camp is competitive offering awards to the best athletes or more laid-back.

*What are the sleeping arrangements? Check on the camp's medical facilities to be sure they can cope with injuries and illness.

* Is the camp accredited? The American Camping Association and the National Camp Association both monitor the quality of camps, so an endorsement from both organizations is a hopeful sign that the camp directors are maintaining certain standards.

Abundance of choices

The landscape widens each year as more camps spring up to meet the growing demand for summer programs. There are about 10,000 summer camp programs in the United States, and last year they served 6.2 million children, according to the National Camp Association (NCA), a New York nonprofit that monitors the quality of summer camps.

U.S. camp programs are attracting an increasing number of students from Europe and Asia, where camps are not so plentiful, says Jeffrey Solomon, executive director of the NCA.

"Inquiries from overseas have increased by approximately 50 percent over the past five years," he says. "Many of these families are primarily interested in an immersion into American culture, recreation and to improve their children's English language skills."

The age range of campers also has expanded so that some 17- and 18-year-olds attend summer programs. Academic-based and overseas travel camps appeal to this age range, Mr. Solomon says.

Community service camps fit a recent category that helps many high school students meet state graduation requirements for participation in volunteer programs. The number of camps for children with special medical or mental health needs also has increased recently.

Day camps also are growing in popularity to meet the needs of families with younger children who are not ready to leave home.

Still, the traditional residential or sleep-away camp remains the most popular choice for most families, Mr. Solomon says.

Right age for camp

Though parents might worry that their child may not be ready for camp, experienced counselors say parents usually suffer more from homesickness than children. Properly run camps are attuned to the signs of loneliness that can crop up during a camp stay and have techniques for comforting the child.

"When someone felt sad at my camp, we'd all gather around and give her hugs," says Georgia, who spent the past two summers at Camp Wyonegonic in Maine. "We'd read stories and make sure the person felt happy. Usually it [homesickness] didn't last long."

The age when children are ready for camp varies according to personality and interest. Most children are ready by age 10 for an eight-week program, camp counselors say. Some never are interested in camp, while others usually those with older siblings who have gone to camp are ready to leave sooner.

"Involve your child in the decision," Mrs. Hirsch advises. "Go to a camp fair and collect some bro-chures. Ask them about their interests and arrange for them to talk to the camp director. This is the best way to find out if your child is ready."

Camp fairs usually are offered in January or February the time of year when most camps fill up their spaces. The fairs typically attract dozens of camp representatives. Though it can be a good starting point for research, the information collected at fairs should be verified. The Internet is a good tool for research.

Key factors to investigate are a camp's staffing ratio and the quality of training that counselors receive, camp industry officials say. The industry standard is a staffing ratio of one counselor for every four children.

The most important step in deciding on a camp is to interview the staff and, if possible, to inspect the facility, Mr. Solomon says. "Camp fairs have become sort of a meat market," he says. "It's a matter of who's willing to pay for the booth."

His organization has staff members who are trained to help parents select camps a free service that is worth checking out. The group does annual checkups on camps it recommends and collects information from surveys issued to every summer camper.

"We're their [parents'] advocates," he says. "Our hope is that we get good, honest information each year that we can pass on to camp directors to make sure the programs are satisfactory."

The group's Web site (www.summercamp.org) has a button to click on for the camp advisory service. The site also offers a list of questions parents should pose to camp directors, Mr. Solomon says.

NCA staff members can answer parents' questions and find out whether a specific camp is accredited, he says. "We do urge families to talk to camp directors and ask for a list of references. If any camp declines to do this, avoid it," he advises.

More Info:

Books

* Summer Opportunities for Kids and Teenagers 1999, by Peterson's Guides, 1998. The 16th edition of this handbook contains a comprehensive listing, including photos, of 1,800 U.S. and foreign-based summer camps divided into categories, with descriptions, pricing and registration guidelines.

* "Guide to ACA-Accredited Camps," by the American Camping Association, 1998. This directory lists more than 2,000 summer camp programs that meet the association's standards for health, safety, staffing, food service and program quality. The programs are sorted by region and activity.

* Choosing the Right Camp: The Complete Guide to the Best Summer Camp for Your Child, by Richard C. Kennedy and Michael Kimball, Timeless Books, 1995.

* Guide to Summer Camps and Summer Schools, by Daniel P. McKeever, Porter Sargent Publishing, 1995.

* Summer Camp: A Guidebook for Parents, by Alice Van Krevelen, Nelson-Hall Co., 1981. This guide includes general tips on how to prepare for sending children away to camp.

* Summer Fun: The Parents' Complete Guide to Day Camps, Overnight Camps, Specialty Camps and Teen Tours, by Marian Edelman Borden, Facts on File, 1999.

Children's books

*"Summer Camp, Ready or Not," by Sandra Belton, Simon & Schuster, 1997. This book is geared for children ages 9 to 12 and is a good introduction to what they can expect to experience at camp.

*"Harry Goes to Day Camp," by Harriet Ziefert, Puffin Books, 1990. An easy-to-read book aimed at beginning readers, this story is about a hippo's experience in going to day camp.

* "Help! I'm Trapped in the First Day of Summer Camp," by Todd Strasser, Scholastic Inc., 1998. This is a story about a boy named Jake who has an awful introduction to camp but ends up having a great time.

On line

* The National Camp Association maintains a Web site (www.summercamp.org) that is a general clearinghouse of summer camps organized by region, activities and type of camp. It links to other sites and includes a search engine for specific interests. Information: 800/966-CAMP.

*The American Camping Association's Web site (www.acacamps.org) includes a directory of about 2,000 ACA-accredited camps. Parents can check whether a camp that interests them meets the ACA accreditation standards.

*The Camp Channel (www.campchannel.com) has a search engine that allows you to seek camps by name, type, region and activity.

* A Web site (www.kidscamps.com) provides another source of camp listings organized by activities, special needs and residential, day and sports camps. Users can search by region. The site links to stores selling camping equipment.

Associations

* Summer Solution Camp Advisors helps parents find camps that meet desires and needs for location, activities, specialties, prices, etc. Information: 703/255-2540.

*Tips on Trips and Camps is a service that sponsors open houses on camping and field trips and offers a free consulting service to help parents find the right camp for their children. Information: 202/337-0681 or 800/519-TIPS.

*The Council of Better Business Bureaus Inc. has a set of guidelines for choosing a summer camp and making certain that a camp has not ended up in a complaint file. The local bureau's address is 1012 14th St. NW, 14th floor, Washington, D.C. 20005-3410. Information: 202/393-8000.

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