15 things to think about when choosing a summer camp for your kids

Shloak Gupta dumps a plastic cup of water on unsuspecting Jaedon Molinar as they play the Drip, Drip, Drop game as part of the festivities in the summer camp Olympics. The kids are from the Pflugerville YMCA. The YMCA of Austin is hosting its 2015 Summer Camp Olympics Friday, July 24, at the Texas School for the Deaf. The Summer Camp Olympics is designed to engage children in good old fashioned fun and to get a little wet on a hot day. RALPH BARRERA/ AMERICAN-STATESMAN

By Nicole Villalpando
Austin American-Statesman

We know you’re thinking about spring break, but summer vacation is only 14 weeks away. Not to stress you out, but some of the most popular camps already might have waiting lists. Now is the time to form a plan.

Here are 15 things to consider when looking at the thousands of possibilities:

1. Evaluate last year’s camps. Will you return? Did they end up being a good fit for your kids? Can you afford them? You might want to ask the camp if there were any concerns with your child last year. If your child told you camp was fine but the counselor reported that your child didn’t socialize with anyone or was disruptive, it might not be the right camp for your child. Also check out how the camp might have changed from the year before. If it’s a new curriculum or entirely new staff, it might not be as enjoyable.

2. What is your summer schedule? Which weeks will you be going on vacation? Which weeks might a family member be able to cover, or one parent or the other? Get an old-fashioned calendar and plot out each week. Put potential camps in pencil as you find them. Put the vacations and Camp Grandma/Grandpa/Daddy/Mommy in ink.

3. What is your budget? It’s really easy to get out of hand. Set the budget in advance and figure out how much that averages per week, per kid. Be realistic. You are not going to find much for less than $200 or $300 a week. If your kids have their hearts set on really expensive camps, plan for less expensive camps the other weeks, as well as ask about scholarships.

4. What hours do you need covered each day? Can you really pick up a kid from a camp that lets out at noon or 3 p.m., or do you need everyone to stay at camp until after 5 p.m.? Also, can you start work at 9:30 a.m.? If not, those camps that start before 9 a.m. are not going to work for you, are they?

5. Where do camps need to be located? Do you want to spend your summer on MoPac Boulevard or Interstate 35 as you try to get your Round Rock-living kids to a South Austin camp or vice versa? If not, limit the possibilities according to where you’re willing to drive each day, twice a day.

6. Are there camps that would be a good fit for all of your children? This is often a hard thing to find. What might be age-appropriate for one kid might be too juvenile for another. Also, if your kids have vastly different interests, it would be hard to find a camp everyone likes. If you can’t find one camp for all, find camps that are near one another, so you’re not having to pick up kids at opposite ends of MoPac Boulevard at 5 p.m.

7. What are your kids interested in and what would they like to try? Summer camp is an amazing time to try out a new activity. If your son has always said he wants to do gymnastics after school, use summer camp as a testing ground. Also consider your kid’s personality before you choose. If your daughter hates art and would rather build with blocks, a pottery camp is not a good choice but a Lego camp is.

8. Where are their friends going? Pick up recommendations from fellow moms, but also consider trying out something new with a friend. It makes it easier to transition into camp if your kid has a buddy.

9. Where does your kid want to go? Sometimes we get so busy in the planning that we forget to ask for their opinions. So ask, then get them to prioritize the list. If you have three camps that you can only get them into on the same week, you will know which one to choose. Or if you can only afford one of your child’s dream camps, you know which one it should be.

10. Is your kid ready for an overnight camp? This might be the year you venture out to overnight camp. Consider if your child can stay overnight at a friend’s house successfully. Consider if your child can take care of basic needs such as dressing themselves, showering and brushing their teeth and hair. OK, some teens still struggle with this, but if your child has never done all of these things independently, work on that before signing her up.

11. What is the staffing like? Ask about ratios and what kinds of breaks the counselors get. Ask if every counselor is first-aid and CPR-certified, what kind of training they do and if the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association.

12. Follow word of mouth. Your fellow parents, your kids’ teachers and counselors can give you recommendations about what camps they have tried or heard good things about. Also, ask them which camps they will never do again or have not heard good things about.

13. Is the camp right for my child with differences? If your child has special needs or quirks, ask the camp if it has had similar campers and what it did to accommodate them. This, of course, applies to kids who have learning differences, sensory issues and physical disabilities, but it also might apply to kids who have food, pollen and insect allergies, medical issues such as asthma, diabetes or arthritis, or personality differences such as fear of the dark or fear of animals. You want to know what kind of medical care they will have access to, what kind of accommodations can be used and what kinds of activities will be happening to make sure it’s a match.

14. What are the campers like? Has everyone been going to the same camp all summer long? Your child who comes in the fourth week might have trouble fitting in. The same is true if most of the campers went to daycare there or have been going to that camp since they were in kindergarten. Ask about the boy-girl ratio, as well as the age ratio. If most of the kids at a camp for grades kindergarten through fifth are first- or second-graders, your fourth-grader is going to hate it.

15. What is your backup plan? If you get to camp and after a few days, your kid hates it, gets kicked out or needs to come home, is there somewhere that will take your child for the rest of that week?

It’s a jungle of possibilities out there. Use our camp guide to help you find the right one.