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6 Mom Truths About Finding Summer Camps

“Get your kids’ feedback on camp so you’ll have insight for next year” … plus five more parenting strategies for choosing great summer camps.

Dear parents who might be thinking about camps and activities for your children this summer – please, take a deep breath. I mean this in the kindest and most sympathetic way possible. Everything will be okay.

You see, every year about this time – when my kids were young like yours – I started obsessing about summer. I remember ruminating on what the best camps were for my babies, where they would learn the most amazing things, and how they would develop the most important skills. I pondered where my darlings would be treated exactly like the spectacularly gifted and unique superstar princess warriors I absolutely knew they were – at ages six, eight, and ten. And I wondered how we would pay for it.

One spring, our financial picture was looking a little bleaker than it had in years past. It seemed like the one camp my girls had thoroughly enjoyed the previous summer – the one where they raved about the counselors and finished the week with their confidence way up – was beyond our family’s budget. 

Right away, I began my quest to set up a payment plan or get some kind of discount so my kids could attend this camp again. I knew the director, so I emailed her and offered to help out on the communications front in exchange for a deal. Spoiler: It worked! I bartered my daughters into that camp, and they loved it. That year and the next year and the year after, it was a perennial favorite. And every time we signed up for the camp, I thanked the director for her flexibility and compassion. And of course, I know now that had it not worked, another camp would have turned out to be a great experience, too.

My three children are past their summer camp years now, but just for fun, I sent them this question in our group text: What stands out as your favorite camp experience over the years – and why do you think that is? (Please ask friends who are with you!) 

The answers (from my sample of roughly eight young people) ranged from being out on the water, to getting a cool nickname from counselors, to being around animals. And some of the responses were less than positive: I cried a lot and came home early. Camps were too expensive – I have eight siblings. It was hot all the time. 

But which answer really made me smile? One of my daughter’s favorite camp experiences was the free week at vacation Bible school “because of the variety of activities.” And I don’t even think that particular VBS was at our church! 

All this to say, if you’re in camp-finding mode now, please give yourself a break. I’m here to tell you (and my women-children and their friends will tell you, too), there are a lot of camps in our area for every interest and every budget, and many (not just one) will succeed at providing your kids memorable, wonderful experiences. That said, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned about summer camps over the years. 

1. Don’t kick yourself too hard for not signing up your child for that one camp everyone is doing. While it’s true it’s probably a great camp (that’s why it’s full), your child may benefit from not being around the same kids he has been around during the school year.

2. If your child is passionate about one activity or sport, consider lessons that run the course of the summer or individual training sessions with a local expert.  

3. As convenient as it seems, it might not be a good idea to enroll all your kids in the same camp during the same week. It looks good on the calendar (and I know from experience it feels good) to see that everyone is scheduled for art camp that last week of June. But bottom line, you might be paying for one of your kids to spend a week doing something she really isn’t that into. And she might just benefit from the solo time!

4. If a child only wants to enroll in a certain camp because a certain friend is signed up, it might not be the best fit. There are a few factors to consider here. First, some camps (but not all) are expensive, and can you really afford that much money for what is amounting to a glorified play date? Second, the odds are really good that the kids won’t be in the same group or spend that much time together anyway without some world-class whining from parents and kids, so no one is winning in this situation. 

5. For your older kids, remember to check out volunteer opportunities – especially at faith-based camps or vacation Bible school. And keep your eyes peeled for pop-up camps in the neighborhood or at area parks and recreation centers.

6. Always ask your kids what interests them and what camps and activities they want to do. If you have to talk them into going to the camp, drop-off will stink for at least the first day, and maybe the entire week.

And one last thing: When summer is unfolding and another lesson, activity, day at camp, or day at home wraps up, try to keep your kids talking about their feelings. Feelings turn into memories, and memories last a lifetime. If you’re like me, you’ll like what you see in ten years when you send out that group text to your kids. And with a little luck and planning, you’ll have a bunch of happy campers! 

Visit the newly updated RFM Summer Camp Finder with more than 300 camps for all ages and interests. It’s easier than ever to search by activity, age, and location and find summer camps and activities for your kids!

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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