Over the last 20 years, parents and children have increasingly approached summer day camps as an opportunity to hone in on a specific talent — from athletics and music to science and theater. But many in the industry report a pushback in recent years: Parents and children may be looking for a specialty camp but, increasingly, they also want aspects of the traditional day camp model, chock full of swimming, crafts and low-pressure fun.
“As kids get older, they might develop really specific interests, but for the really young children, I think it’s helpful to experience a wide range of things,” says Dr. Jennifer Goldberg, director of elementary education at Fairfield University. “More and more there are camps that specialize in one area, but still offer other activities. But I would follow up with that. Sometimes camps advertise the variety, but they don’t really invest in those other activities.”
Nancy Heraghty is director of Destination Science camps, with locations in four different states. While children in the DS camp spend the bulk of their time in science-related activities, Heraghty is also adamant about investing in traditional summer fun activities. Along with robot building, the camp features relay races, capture the flag and other unabashed glee. “We want them to experience the friendship and the lighthearted joy of summer,” she explains. “For us, it’s as much about building relationships as it is about learning science.”
When choosing an arts camp
Arts camps can be a great way for kids to learn a new skill or further explore an existing talent. Just make sure that your child is genuinely interested in the area and that the program is dynamic enough to hold his or her attention.
“It’s important to look at the structure of the activities. You should ask: Will the child spend a lot of time waiting for their turn, or will the time be structured, so that they’re really involved?” says Goldberg. “I encourage people to really examine their child’s comfort level in that area. If it’s something new, it will be important to have a smaller teacher to student ratio.”
Note to parents:
You need to relax.
“If I had a 4- or a 5-year-old, my advice would be to relax a little. Let the kid find what he likes about camp. You have to make sure they’re in a safe, fun environment, and then just let them breathe,” says Howard Betterman, owner and director of Sesame/Rockwood Camps in Pennsylvania. “The older they get, the parent might notice a strong interest. But there’s always the possibility of doing a one-week specialty camp, and a couple weeks of a more traditional model.”
Staff, variety make for happy campers
Connie Coutellier can tell you all you need to know about the summer day camp business. She wrote the book on that subject — literally. “Day Camp from Day One: A Hands-On Guide for Day Camp Administrators” is an industry standard. She is the former president of the American Camp Association and the former programs director for Camp Fire USA.
What are the basics to look for when choosing a summer day camp?
I would certainly want to know that they’re accredited by the American Camp Association. Not all are. They need to go through a rigorous process of 300 standards to do so.
Does the ACA certify specialized camps, like music or soccer camps?
Yes. And in that case, you want to know that they’re doing other things besides soccer or music. They may be spending the majority of their time on soccer or horseback riding or swimming, but what other kinds of things do they do? Variety is really important, especially the younger the child is.
What’s the core ingredient that makes for a great day camp?
Staffing. When a child is in a group with staff that is caring and concerned and looking out for that child’s safety, that child is going to have a great experience.
If you were personally looking to place your child in a day camp, what are the things you would look for?
First, I would look at their staffing process: screening and training, how old they are, the ratio of staff to camper. I’d want them to be able to articulate their activities to me, and I’d want to make sure my child is interested in them. If I was a working parent, I’d want to know if there is extended-day possibilities. That is key for so many people.