Though the official start of spring is still days away and the frigidity of winter is still recent on the minds of many, Janelle Wright, a Potomac, Md., mother of two, has already mapped out the summer for her children.
Wright did research before signing up her 13-year-old daughter, Corrine, in an academic camp geared toward boosting her English composition skills, and enrolling her 12-year-old son, Teddy, in a camp for children whose needs fall just outside the norm.
Indeed, experts say social interactions, a chance to have fun and an opportunity to fill the time between family trips are just some of the benefits of summer camps.
There are camps for every child, no matter their needs.
“I spoke to the camp and shared with them up front that my son might need help socializing with other kids,” said Wright. “He might need directions repeated to him. I did that so I could drive away in peace knowing that he’d be fine. It’s different for my daughter because she doesn’t have any challenges. I don’t have to call the camp and talk to them like I do with my son.”
WHETHER A CHILD is typical or falls slightly outside the norm, doing a bit of research and exercising forethought are good ideas when selecting summer programs. In fact, advanced planning and registration for summer camp is essential in the Washington, D.C., region, say educators.
“It’s important to find an activity that kids already like to do. It’s summer so kids should have fun,” said Linda Gulyn, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Marymount University in Arlington.
“Choose a camp where they won’t feel lonely. It helps to sign them up with a buddy, especially in late elementary and middle school so they’ll have one or two people at camp they already know. That really does matter.”
If choosing a specialty camp, summer might not be the time for embarking on a new activity, however. “Summer camps may not be a time to have kids do something completely new,” she said. “For example, if a child has never played golf, you might not want to invest money in a golf camp if you aren’t sure your child will enjoy it. A child needs to feel like this is not school where they are struggling to learn a new activity.”
The most important thing is for parents to do their research.
“Interview the camp director, said Lois McCabe, head of school for The Diener School in Potomac. “What does the day look like? How structured or unstructured is it? It is good to have a mix of both.”
This is particularly true for children with special needs. “You want to make sure the camp understands the needs of special needs children,” said McCabe. “You don’t want to throw them in this big unstructured environment with other kids and hope for the best. You want to make sure your child’s peer groups understand your child.”
“Parents should consider a camp that taps into their child’s strengths, the size of the groupings during the day,” said Susan J. Johnson, Ph. D., of Commonwealth Academy in Alexandria. “Consider the length of time for each activity.”
Johnson advises that parents try coordinating their child’s attention span with the camp's schedule. “Match camp schedule with body clock of the child,” she said. “Schedule afternoon camp for children who naturally sleep late in the mornings, for example.”
INFORM THE CAMP’S STAFF if a child has allergies, medical needs or phobias. For special needs children, Johnson says camp counselors and directors should be “aware of a child’s specific learning disabilities, and trained in how to teach children with learning disabilities, present directions, teach multiple strategies for learning new skills and always incorporate hands-on learning activities.”
For children who are prone to feeling anxious about going to camp, Johnson suggests parents do a practice run to camp and visit the campus or building. “This will ease first day anxiety and give the camper self confidence that he or she knows his way around,” she said. “Meet the counselors if possible.”
There are also options if parents want their children to enjoy typical camp activities like swimming and arts and crafts combined with academics. For example, Wright chose an English program at St. Andrew’s Episcopal School in Potomac for her daughter.
“[Our] summer programs encompass academics for credit or enrichment and the arts [including] visual, performing and culinary,” said Monique McMillan-Jackson, director of summer programs. St. Andrews also offers sports and technology camps.
Campers who attend Summer at Norwood in Potomac can expect to “camp outside the lines,” said Kevin Rechen, director of auxiliary programs at Norwood School. The school’s camps run the gamut from art, science, technology and adventure to academics, dance, sports and theater.
SOME DAY CAMPS are structured to allow parents to choose the week their child will attend camp based on the camper’s interests.
“We have a theme for every week that is packed with field trips and special events” said Fred Lowery, owner of Kiddie Country in Burke, which is running 11 weeks of camp this summer. “All of the camp activities are related to the theme. There are field trips to the Maryland Science Center, a Washington Mystics game, Reptiles Alive and Hershey Park. On site, we have everything from mad science to jugglers to swimming.”
Traditional camp experiences, like opportunities for socializing with peers, are still found in specialty camps.
“As [campers] learn to identify, measure and combine ingredients, they are also learning important life skills, working together as a team and ultimately creating a delicious meal,” said Jennifer Bashaw, curriculum development coordinator at Tiny Chefs, Inc. “Children leave our camps with a greater confidence in their kitchen skills and personal creativity.”