On a sunny summer afternoon at Camp Pinecliffe in Harrison, Me., girls gather at Crystal Lake for a swimming lesson. Farther south, at Independent Lake Camp in Orson, Pa., campers practice on a flying trapeze. And at Rawhide Ranch in Bonsall, Calif., children stand around four ponies to learn the basics of horse grooming.
There's something for everyone in the world of sleepaway camps. While the majority of the 6,000 residential U.S. camps offer a smattering of swimming, boating, soccer, and the like, an increasing number feature nontraditional activities, from circus arts to extreme sports, such as BMX free-style bicycling. What's more, about 20% of all camps specialize, focusing on, say, computers or horseback riding.
While top-of-the-line camps can cost close to $8,000 for an eight-week session, you can find less expensive alternatives, such as subsidized scouting camps, that typically run $800 for two weeks. Camps also vary by level of competition, type of accommodations, even policies on campers phoning home.
With so many choices, how do you find the best one for your child? And if you're thinking of sending a child to camp next summer, when should you start your search?
The answer to the last question is easy: right now. "It's never too early to start looking," says Bette Bussel, executive director of the New England chapter of the American Camping Assn. in Natick, Mass. While the big recruitment season is in fall and early winter, popular camps fill up even before then. Plus, if you investigate during the summer, you can get a feel for a camp by going there in season. Most camps welcome such visits as long as you make an appointment ahead of time. If you don't get moving until the fall, that's O.K. Just remember: "By February, lots of camps don't have any openings," says Peg Smith, executive director of the American Camping Assn. (ACA) in Martinsville, Ind.
Where to look? One good place to begin is the Web, where you'll find a number of sites aimed at helping parents in their search (table). Before you log on, however, you need to reflect on a few crucial matters. Chief among them: Is your child ready for a sleepaway program? Most camps accept children starting at age 6 or 7, though some go as young as 5, according to the National Camp Assn. (NCA) in New York. You can get a clue to your kids' readiness by how well they handle sleepovers with friends and whether they have indicated an interest in attending a camp. Younger children might feel more comfortable if an older sibling is at the same camp, though you can't assume all your offspring will fit in at the same place. Believe it or not, 6- to 9-year-old first-timers tend to adjust more quickly than older ones, says Jeff Solomon, executive director of the NCA.
You also must understand your goals. Are you interested in improving your child's tennis skills? Giving him or her access to top-quality facilities, a good drama program, or a place to have fun? It's important to consider the child's personality--don't assume the type of camp you attended will be appropriate for your child, too. A shy bookworm might do better at a place that emphasizes instruction over competition, while a star athlete would prefer a camp with plenty of intercamp sports competition.
Deciphering a camp's fundamental character requires an in-depth conversation with its director. Many will arrange home visits during the fall with prospective campers and their families if you can't visit during the summer. Or you can talk on the phone.
Find out the number of campers who return from year to year and the ratio of campers to counselors. The average return ratio is 60%, according to the ACA, and the recommended camper-counselor ratio is 6:1 for ages 6 to 8 and 8:1 for 9- to 14-year-olds. You also want to know how many counselors come back for another stint. The national average is 40% to 60%. That's important because it not only suggests that the camp treats its counselors well but there's also continuity of counselors and the opportunity for campers to form real bonds with them. Counselors typically range in age from 18 to 21, says the NCA.
Most revealing is the record of the supervisory staff--the heads of boating, tennis, arts and crafts, and so on. "They should be older, more mature," says Bette Horowitz, a camp consultant in Woodbridge, Conn. "It's more important that these key people keep returning." Most of the 15 department heads at Camp Thunderbird, a wilderness camp in Bemidji, Minn., have been working there for 12 to 20 years.
Camps vary in how independent they allow campers to be. At Pinecliffe, 8- to 10-year-olds are pretty much told what activities they'll be participating in, and 11- to 14-year-olds can pick about two of seven activities in a day. By contrast--and in keeping with its name--Independent Lake offers complete freedom of choice. Many camps, such as Fernwood in Poland, Me., are in between: Campers are required to take swimming and canoeing lessons and join in team sports twice a week; the rest is up to the camper.
Camps differ in many other respects. About 75% are coed. At most, children sleep in cabins. But at Camp Flying Cloud in Mount Holly, Vt., they live in tents. At Camp Thunderbird, kids go on wilderness trips lasting from 3 to 37 days to such places as the Canadian Rockies. While many traditional camps last for one seven- or eight-week session, others offer the option of a two-, four-, or eight-week stay. Camps even vary in their phone policies, from those that don't allow any telephone contact with parents to those that let campers call home at will.
Despite your best efforts, you may discover your choice doesn't work. Three years ago, Sharon Groth of Pelham, N.Y., sent her daughter Sarah, then 13, to a camp where the range of activities and noncompetitive philosophy all seemed to fit the bill. But when she arrived, Sarah discovered that many of the girls in her cabin had attended the camp before and had formed an impenetrable clique. "A camp is not only the activities but the social atmosphere--and that's virtually impossible to figure out beforehand," says Groth. The next year, Sarah went to a different camp where she signed on as a counselor-in-training, and where, says Groth, "everyone was starting on the ground floor together." She liked it much better. It just goes to show: When choosing a camp, it might take more than one try before you find your child's best match. By Anne Field