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Choosing a Summer Camp

Region offers programs to tempt children with interests ranging from sports to drama to science.

Student attending the Norwood School summer camp in Bethesda, Md., spend time with a firefighter.

Student attending the Norwood School summer camp in Bethesda, Md., spend time with a firefighter. Photo courtesy of Norwood School

While most of Washington is braving the winter weather, April Toman has been planning for summer. At the top of her list: choosing a camp for her two children, Claire, who is in fifth grade, and Will, who is a second grader.

“I start thinking about it in January,” said Toman, who lives in Alexandria. “I talk to my kids about what they are interested in taking. There are so many options and the popular camps fill up quickly.”

Education experts say summer camp is an important part of a childhood experience, and parents should start considering options well before the end of the school year.

“I think summer camps are wonderful for kids,” said Tammy Davis, a doctor of education and a professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington. “Sometimes kids lose ground over the summer, especially with regard to their mental activity. Summer camp can continue brain development, especially with regard to creativity, mental activity, physical activity and social activity.”

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Students show projects that they made during a physics camp at SummerTimes Camp at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School last summer.

Davis, who is a former camp counselor, elementary school teacher and school counselor, said children who are not exposed to new social activities could become isolated during the summer months. “If your kids are only playing video games or going to the pool every day, they run the risk of cocooning themselves,” she said. “Choose a camp that expands your child’s horizons, that will be stimulating and engaging and where they will develop new friendships without the pressure of an academic environment.”

Toman, whose children will attend summer camp at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria, says that from traditional day camps to specialty camps, the options for children are plentiful. “My children have done junior veterinarian camp in the past, and this year we might try an eco-adventures camp.”

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Students attending the Norwood School summer camp in Bethesda, Md., enjoy sailing.

FROM SPORTS TO SCIENCE, the Washington region is filled with camps that will suit almost every child. For example, Annie Moyer, director of the Sun & Moon Yoga Studio in Arlington and Fairfax, says yoga camps are options even for children who have never practiced yoga. “No yoga experience is necessary,” she said. “We do yoga games and poses, breathing, artistic expression and, weather permitting, outdoor playground time.”

For youngsters with a passion for all things artistic, Jeanne Loveland, education director for the Greater Reston Arts Center, suggests art camp. “Our camps are based on the GRACE mission, which is contemporary art” she said. “There are some discussions and there are art projects. There is one camp of messy art projects that your mom would never let you do at home. The camps are educational, but also fun. We will bring in local artists.”

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Students attend the Norwood School summer camp in Bethesda, Md. Experts say summer camp can continue brain development, creativity, mental activity, physical activity and social activity after the school year ends.

Loveland added that during one session, students will learn about public art, and “will create a public art work that will be displayed publicly after the camp.”

Jim Supple, director of summer programs at St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School, encourages parents to consider specialty camps as well as traditional day camps. “Specialty camps are great ways to try new things, to expand horizons, and to challenge yourself,” he said. “Children are naturally curious and specialty camps provide a way for children to learn more about their interests. If a child is not the most athletic and would rather learn about fashion or photography, acting or magic, specialty camps provide that outlet. They allow children to find things that they are good at and lets them be proud in that activity.”

While the thought of academic camps might cause some children to cringe, Mollianne Logerwell, Ph.D., director of science education at George Mason University’s Virginia Initiative for Science Teaching and Achievement, says that does not have to be the case. George Mason hosts science camps, and “students frequently tell us that camp was not only fun, but also increased their interest in science,” she said. “Additionally, classroom teachers have told us that students who attended a VISTA camp ask higher-level questions and are more engaged in science lessons than students who did not attend camp.”

Logerwell said VISTA camps are geared toward low-income students. “It's also a great way to expose families with limited knowledge to the possibility of attending and affording college.”

WITH SO MANY OPTIONS for summer camps, choosing the best camp for your child can be overwhelming. “When parents are looking for a camp, they should try to find a camp where they’re comfortable with the facility, the programming, and counselors and staff,” said Kevin Rechen, camp director for the Norwood School in Bethesda, Md.

Gabrielle Summers, who is planning to send her children to summer camp at the Norwood School, says that she considers safety first. “Second, [I consider] the qualifications of counselors and leadership and their love of the children. [Then] I look at cost, early bird discounts, payment due dates and cancellation policies.”

For those who may not be able to afford the cost of summer camp, Rechen suggests that parents do a little research. “Many summer camps offer financial aid,” he said. “There are also foundations that give grants for camps.”

No matter which camp a child attends, however, Davis has one caution: “Be careful about over-scheduling camps, doing back-to-back camps and not giving children down time,” she said. “Some people use camp as day care and that is not always a good thing.”