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Hikers or hackers? Choosing the right camp for your kids.

The selection is better than ever

THE LAST TIME Sunset explored summer camps, back in 1979, we noted the growth in specialty camps, particularly sports camps emphasizing soccer, tennis, or basketball. Other camps, we said, were beginning to offer choral music, river-running, and weight-loss programs.

Today, kids can work on an Indian reservation in Arizona, study the nation's legal system with lawyers in California, learn how to fly an airplane in Utah, or glean the intricacies of the art world at Christie's auction house in London.

Of course, traditional summer camps--where your child rides a horse, paddles a canoe, reads a compass, and roasts s'mores around a campfire---are also popular. But there are a lot more camps to choose from these days. As a result, your choice of camps is far more interesting, but also potentially more difficult.


You must first decide whether your child is better suited to a day camp or a resident camp. A day camp, from which your child comes home every afternoon, is especially good for a young camper who may be nervous about being away from home. Some day camps even use facilities--such as a local high school or a nearby college--that may already be familiar to your child. Resident camps offer meals and lodging and run from one to four weeks. Costs generally range from $100 to $350 a week at camps operated by nonprofit groups like Scouts, the Y, and churches and synagogues. A week at a privately run camp costs between $250 and $1,000. For either type of camp, scholarships are often available (ask the director).

Traditional camps offer a variety of activities--archery, crafts, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, swimming. The idea, says Bruce Johnson, whose family has owned one such camp in Northern California for 32 years, is to expose kids to a full range of activities--from gathering eggs in the henhouse to learning how to groom and saddle a horse.

Specialty camps continue to grow in number. In addition to sports camps that offer instruction in soccer, baseball, or basketball, today there are camps for young surfers, roller-skating enthusiasts, and kayakers. While most sports camps are limited in focus, academic camps frequently offer more diverse programs. A marine camp in San Diego, for example, includes a trip to Sea World and Boogie board lessons in addition to biology and marine-science instruction.

Environmental or community service camps could be the wave of the future. At these camps, young teens blaze wilderness trails, teach reading in Appalachia, build schools in Mexico--the possibilities are endless. One such camp weighs the food scraps that are left over after one of the first meals and encourages campers to figure out ways to utilize the leftovers or to reduce them.


Begin by including your child in the discussion. "Summer camp shouldn't be reform school," says Gary Abell of the nonprofit American Camping Association. "Talk about the choices. Make sure the camp selected is the one your child wants to go to, not one you wish you could have gone to as a kid."

Many resident camps are accredited by the ACA, but many day camps as well as some start-up ventures are not. The ACA publishes annually its Guide to Accredited Camps. For a copy, call (800) 428-2267; cost is $10.95. When checking out camps not yet accredited, you should ask how long the camp has been in operation, how comprehensive its medical and liability insurance is, and what the credentials and qualifications of administrators and counselors are.

The regional offices of the ACA in Northern California (800/362-2236 or 415/453-1832) and Southern California (310/985-5781) will each send you a free directory of the camps in its area. The Western Association of Independent Camps publishes a free directory of its member camps in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. For a copy, call (800) 758-7519. Information can also be found in the Sunset School & Camp Directory, the green-bordered pages in the back of the magazine.

At camp fairs, usually held in the off-season at schools or public facilities, you can meet camp directors and pick up brochures and even videos. The fairs are designed to explain the camps' activities and philosophies. Call your regional ACA office for the locations and dates of the fairs nearest you.

Regional ACA offices can also give general camp referrals, as can Student Camp and Trip Advisors, which works like a travel agency for parents trying to match their child's interests and personality with a camp (there's no fee). Call (415) 592-7189.


After you've narrowed your selection, ask for references in your area--then ask those people for additional references. As one camp owner we talked with said, "Most of the good camps depend on repeat business. So ask the parents if they'd send their kid back to that camp. If they would, that's a good sign."

You should also ask questions of the camp directors. Is the camp accredited? How long has it been in operation? How large is its enrollment? What sort of food service does the camp have? What are the sleeping and bathroom arrangements? What kind of medical service is available?

Asking questions about the staff can be equally helpful. What is the ratio of counselors to campers? (For resident camps, the ACA recommends 1 adult staff member to every 6 nondisabled campers ages 7 and 8; 1 counselor to 8 campers ages 9 through 14; and 1 counselor to 10 campers ages 15 through 17.) What are the ages of the counselors? (At least 80 percent should be 18 or older.) What is their training, and what are the staff's philosophies on discipline, homesickness, and sports competition?

Finally, take your time making your decision. True, summer is right around the corner, but you shouldn't rush into a decision for its own sake. Says camp adviser Lois Levine, "There are very few terrible camps. But there are plenty of camps that simply aren't right for your child. So take the time to get all your questions answered, and make sure both you and your child feel comfortable with the final selection."
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Lansing, David
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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