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Choosing a Summer Camp

Camp experts offer advice on selecting a camp, but now is the time to register.

Campers at Hidden Oaks Nature Center marvel at a crayfish they netted in the creek.

Campers at Hidden Oaks Nature Center marvel at a crayfish they netted in the creek. Photo courtesy of Fairfax County Park Authority

Many families with school age children will plan to have their children spend some of the much-anticipated summer season in camp. If you haven’t yet selected camps for your children, now is the time.

“Popular classes and programs always fill early,” said Kevin Rechen, camp director of Summer at Norwood in Potomac, Md.. “Families that are choosing a camp based on a specific program or class should register as soon as they can.”

Whether you choose a traditional day camp, a specialty camp or a sleep away camp, the Washington, D.C. region has a multitude of offerings. The array of options can be overwhelming for some parents, but summer camps can be an important part of a child’s development. Local child development experts say there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing for a camp.

“Summer camp is an opportunity for children to develop social skills with their peers,” said Linda Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. “Camps give the benefits of social interaction in a more relaxed setting.”

When selecting a camp, there are factors that parents should keep in mind. “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 Rechen.

An array of specialty camps offer children a chance to focus on one activity.

“Developmentally, as children get older they get more specialized in their skills and interests,” said Gulyn. “Summer camp is an opportunity to hone in on those skills. Go with the child’s interest and skills and further develop those because they are an import part of a child’s identity.”

Specialty camps can help children develop creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

For example, St. Stephen's & St. Agnes School in Alexandria offers camps that include Quadcopters and Video Editing, MiKiDo Mixed Martial Arts, CSI Detective, Hunger Games, Civil War, Fantasy Battle Gaming, Filmworx Movie Making, Eco-Adventures, Junior Musical Theater, Zooolgy, [and] Junior Veterinarian, said Linda Stratton of SSSAS.

OTHER SPECIALTY CAMPS include cooking camps, yoga camps and sports camps that run the gamut from tennis to hockey.

“A specialty camp gives children a sense of one particular area for a short period of time and allows them to decide if it is something that they want to pursue long-term,” said Bethesda, Md., resident Deborah Helfeld who has taught art and yoga summer camps.

At George Mason University, high school juniors and seniors will have an opportunity to attend a camp that will give them a head start on college. “It’s not your parents’ summer camp,” said Sudha Kamath. “Mason is giving high school juniors and seniors the chance to take some rare classes for college credit, covering everything from insects that crawl underground to objects that spin through outer space.”

Cathy Evans, director of special projects at George Mason University said, “Subjects include astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, economics, environmental science, ethics, global affairs, health behavior, history, mathematics, nutrition and public speaking. The sky’s the limit as students explore topics like ‘Stars, Galaxies and the Universe’ and ‘The Ecosphere.’”

Camp Greenway at The Madeira School offers three options for two-week camp sessions with outdoor and indoor activities, said Laura Temple, spokeswoman for school in McLean, Va. "Water sports, games, team sports, music, arts and crafts, and MAD Science are all part of the daily action for campers."

The Fairfax County Park Authority offers camps nature camps that are designed to immerse children in the outdoors. "We want the children to connect with the world around them," said Judy Pedersen, Public Information Officer, Fairfax County Park Authority. "When they leave camp, we hope that they have a deeper appreciation for the world around them for and the environment.” You don't need to be a resident of Fairfax County to attend the camps, Pedersen said.

The Arlington Art Center offers summer camps for children and teens that meet daily for several sessions throughout the summer, 3550 Wilson Blvd, Arlington. Classes range from portfolio development to drawing, acrylic painting, and contemporary landscapes with oil paint.

ANOTHER OPTION is sleep away camp, which can sometimes be a nerve-wracking but rewarding experience for both a parent and a child.

How does a parent know that their child is ready for to make this leap? “It is going to vary from child to child and family to family.” said Michele C. Garofalo, Ed.D., assistant chair, Department of Counseling and a professor of Psychology at Marymount University in Arlington. “I think if a child has spent time having sleep overs with friends and has done ok, and is independent and feels comfortable sleeping at friends’ houses then it should be fine.”

Garofalo suggests that the first sleep away camp experience should be brief.

“I think you want to do a shorter experience to get them ready. The first summer, send them to a four-day camp to test the waters. Their first experience should be at a camp that is close to home. Don’t send them to a camp in California the first time.”

An open dialog between parent and child is key. “Explain to the child that they are going to be on their own and tell them what will be expected of them,” said Garofalo. “Parents can prepare their children and have an honest conversation about what will happen at the camp.

Those who think they can’t afford the cost of summer camp should research financial aid options.

“Many summer camps offer financial aid and there are foundations that give grants for camps,” said Rechen.