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How to choose the right summer camp for your family

Nicole Villalpando
Zachary Antoine, 9, paddles on Onion Creek at Camp Moody in Buda during the YMCA of Austin Canoe Adventure day camp. [JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

There are a lot of camps out there. How do you know which camp is right for your children?




Here are some things to consider:

Your budget: Your child could fall in love with a camp, but if it's not in the budget, it's not going to happen. Check what the price covers. Will kids need to bring lunch and snacks or is food provided? Are there other supplies or fees, on top of registration? Of course, if your child finds the camp of his or her dreams, inquire about scholarships. You never know.

Location: Do you want it to be close to home or close to work? How much time are you willing to spend on Interstate 35 and MoPac Boulevard? If you have kids in different camps, can you drop them off and get to work on time?

Hours: Do you want half-day or full-day camps? And what does full-day mean? Camps that start at 9 a.m. and end at 3 p.m. might not work if you have to be at work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Make sure camps have early or later hours if you need them.

Word of mouth: Ask friends, your children's friends and your children's teachers and school counselors for recommendations. If you've narrowed it down to a couple of camps, ask friends if they've heard of those camps or know someone who has been there. Also ask the camps if you can talk to parents of past campers. Ask those parents or campers not only what they liked but what they didn't like about the camp.

Your child's interests: Ask kids what they want to do. What are their interests? Is there a skill they want to learn? Make kids part of the process, and find camps they look forward to going to. It will make it easier to get kids in the car and off to camp when the time comes.

Their friends: It's always easier to be with new kids and a new place if you have a buddy.

The kids who attend: What is the gender makeup of the group typically? What are the personalities like? What are the ages of most of the kids? A camp might say it's for all ages and every kid, but a first-grader who is into art might not enjoy a camp filled with sporty fifth-graders. Also check that the kids are not all from one school (the one your child doesn't attend).

The staff: What's the staff-to-camper ratio? Where does the camp find their staff? What percentage return each year? What background checks does the camp do? How long have the director and the counselors been working there? Is the director on-site during camp?

Safety measures: Where is the camp physically? Is it a safe space? Can your child easily walk out the door unnoticed or are there safety barriers in place? Can anyone get access to your child? How do adults sign in and out? How do children sign in and out? Does everyone have CPR training? If there is swimming as part of camp, who is the lifeguard? If they are transporting your child, are they insured and with a good driving record? How do they handle injury and illness?

The camp's history: How long has it been in business? If this is the first year, what other programs have staff done? Is there a sponsoring organization? Is it a nonprofit camp or a for-profit camp?

The camp's structure: You'll want to know a sample schedule as well as how they handle transition times. Is there a lot of free time or is it mostly scheduled? Is it chaotic or orderly? Are there a lot of rules or is it more free-form? How do they handle discipline?

Your child's strengths and challenges: If your kid has sensory issues, attention deficient hyperactivity disorder or other differences, you'll need to consider those. What situations has she thrived in? Which situations have not worked? For kids with a 504 plan or Individual Education Plan, let the camp know before you sign up and ask what they have done with kids like yours in the past. If they have not ever had a kid with similar differences, you'll need to make sure they really understand and can accommodate your child.

Your summer schedule: How many weeks of coverage do you need? Do you want them to go to the same camp all summer or are you going to pick a different camp each week? There are pluses and minuses to both methods. The same camp can get boring, but you avoid the transitions. A different camp each week has a lot of transitions and can feel like a lot of running around.

Your backup plan: Let's say you send your math-loving child to engineering camp and she hates it. Then what? Will you let her leave camp earlier or does she need to stick it out for the rest of the week? Or, she gets sick and can't attend, or she does something and isn't welcomed back. What is the alternative?