Planning for summer camp in January feels like planning for Christmas during Halloween. But camps fill up fast and exploring summer options with your child is worth the advanced research.

Approximately 10 million children nationwide attend day or overnight camp. The benefits are far reaching – from providing kids with peer-filled fun and learning, to giving them independence and improving their problem-solving and teamwork skills.

Take the time this winter to sit down with your child, ask what she wants from a camp and research the possibilities. Talk to camp directors; ask for an off-season tour; ask for referrals from parents of previous campers. You’ll be glad you did.

Here’s our annual guide to the programs out there and how you can make the camp experience a great one for your child: 

What’s Out There?

• Traditional camps offer a wide range of activities, from athletics to crafts to confidence-building skills.

• Specialty camps meet a child’s particular interest, such as drama, music or sports.

• Travel camps take campers on hikes, bikes, horseback or canoe rides in parks or other outdoor sites, including abroad.

• Preschool camps are day programs for young children beginning at age 2.9.

• Special-needs camps are designed to meet the needs of children with physical, mental or learning disabilities. Some camps combine children with and without special needs for all or part of the day. Others focus on kids with a specific disability. 

Stretch the Benefits

Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association (ACA), says camp gives kids three key benefits: confidence – because they’ve tried new activities and been successful; curiosity – because camp allows them to explore; and character – because camp fosters respect for other campers, a sense of community and problem-solving skills.

ACA ( offers these tips to help your kids hold onto these benefits year-round: 

• Remember to remind. Remind your kids often that you appreciate their positive attitude and the willingness to help that they developed at camp. 

Become camp-like. Try to change something at home to sustain some of the changes campers have made. For example, set up a “job wheel” that outlines rotating chores among family members – a common facet at camp. 

• Give your kids a say. At camp, children help determine how their day is spent. Their advice is actively sought, and they feel like equal players. Emulating this environment at home allows them to feel like a contributing member of the household. 

• Avoid the negative compliment. Be careful not to inadvertently sabotage your child’s positive post-camp behavior. Instead of saying, “You never did this before,” say, “I noticed how patient you were with your little brother.”

What to Ask About Day Camp

Ask for specifics on:

√ Background and experience of the director.

√  Criteria for hiring staff – Average age, experience level, background checks. 

√  Ratio of staff to campers – Look for one staff member for every six campers ages 7 and 8; one for every 10 campers ages 9-14; and one for every 12 campers ages 15-17.

√  Staff expertise at a specialty camp A music camp should have professional music teachers instructing campers, for example.

√  Tuition and other expenses – Is financial aid available? Will a trip outside the camp cost extra? Is there a refund policy?

√  Condition and safety of facilities and equipment – Are there unprotected cliffs, swamps or dangerous water areas? Is the equipment in good condition? Safety rules, campsite security, etc.?

√  How medical care is handled

√ Camp philosophy – A clear statement of goals and a program that meets those goals.

√  Activities planned

√  Schedule and pace of a typical camp day

√  Age range of campers

√  Food served

√  Camp hours (regular and extended-day).

√  Transportation (availability, type of transport, driver experience). 

Planning on Sleep-Away Camp?

Decisions about camp, from the program selected to what to pack, should be made together. The more ownership your camper has in these decisions, the easier the adjustment and transition to overnight camp will be. 

What to Ask Overnight Camp Staff

Ask the same questions as those for day camp staff (on previous page), but also inquire about:

√ The director’s availability to campers, 

√ Supervision, 

√ How homesickness is handled, and

√ Condition of living quarters (bathrooms, electricity in the cabins, etc.).  

Gear Up!

There’s a lot more to consider than just shorts and T-shirts when packing for overnight camp. The ACA provides the following tips to help families get ready: 

• Pack light. Your child will be living out of a duffel bag, trunk, or suitcase for the duration. Packing light will help her keep track of items.

• Check packing lists. Individual camps usually provide a recommended packing list. Review it carefully and take note of items that aren’t permitted.

• Label everything. Laundry pens, iron-on labels, and press-and-stick labels on clothing, toiletries and personal items are a must if you want your child to return home with his belongings intact. Show your child the labels to be sure he knows what they look like and can identify them.

• Pack the right shoes. Make sure your child’s footwear is comfortable and appropriate. Sending a camper in brand-new hiking boots can result in sore feet and time spent sitting out of exciting activities. Break in any new footwear before camp. 

The ACA offers this head-to-toe packing list, to ensure that your child is prepared for almost any summer camp activity:

• Headgear – bandanas, baseball caps, eyeglasses, sunglasses, and swimming goggles.

• Clothing – T-shirts/tank tops, shorts, long pants, a jacket, a swimsuit, pajamas and robe, sweater or sweatshirt, socks and underwear.

• Footwear – hiking boots, tennis shoes, sandals, dress shoes, and socks.

Bed and bath materials – Towels, a blanket, pillow, pillowcases, sheets, sleeping bag, laundry bag, and mattress pad.

• Bathroom kit – Brush and comb, shampoo, soap and soap container, toothbrush and holder, toothpaste, deodorant, insect repellent, feminine products (for girls), sun block, shaving gear, and sun protection lip balm.

Other items Books and magazines, flashlights and batteries, a water bottle, and writing materials. Check camp policies about any electronics, musical instruments or other special gear.

 Hugs from Home

With the proliferation of email, Facebook posts and cell phone texts, letter writing is becoming a lost art to younger generations. So letters between you and your camper are unique reminders of that time in your child’s life. The ACA – – offers these tips for communicating with campers: 

• Give your child pre-addressed, stamped envelopes or postcards to make writing home about camp activities that much simpler.

• Send a note or postcard to the camp in advance, so that an enthusiastic and encouraging message from home will be there right when he arrives.

• Care packages are always appreciated. Just check with the camp director about policies regarding what items may or may not be included.

• Avoid mentioning how much you, the family and even pets miss your child. It may cause unnecessary homesickness and worry.

• Many camps allow you to see photos and video of daily activities on their Web sites. You may even be able to send an email to your camper that can be printed out and delivered with the regular mail. Check first to see if this is allowed, since many camps prefer traditional letter correspondence from home. 

For more information, visit ACA’s family resource site at