A wise camp alum once said, “Everything you need to know to be a successful adult, you learn in camp.” Susan Rynar, director of Jeff Lake Camp in Sussex County, attests to that maxim. “In camp you learn cooperation, independence, social skills, empathy, resiliency—things that allow you to venture into college with a confident skill pack.”

Lessons from Camp

Research supports this. “Studies reveal that kids who have gone to camp do much better when they go to college,” says Renee Flax, director of camper placement for the American Camp Association, NY and NJ. “Think about it. They’ve already experienced communal living, sharing bathrooms, making decisions, compromising, taking care of themselves and solving conflicts.”

When choosing a camp, considering what your kids are into and whether the camp is right for their age is the obvious place to start. Find out what a typical day is like and what types of activities your child will participate in. See if there’s a mix of activities or if the camp focuses on one activity. Ask what type of supervision there is and how many counselors to a group. If you want your child to learn to swim, ask if the camp offers lessons or just free swim. For sleepaways, it’s important to learn what the bunk structure is, how meals are handled and what the staff-to-camper ratio is.

After nearly two years of COVID-induced social isolation and tech overload, camp enrollments were up 36 percent nationwide last summer compared with previous years, according to summercamphub.com. Kids lost social skills and forgot the give and take of face-to-face relationships and the freedom that comes from being outdoors. The right camp remedies all of this. It unplugs kids from their electronic devices and social media and connects them with nature—and each other—like nothing else.

So how do you find the right camp for your child?

Start Your Search

First, write down what you’re looking for. For example: Do you want a day camp or sleepaway camp? Should it be a camp that’s close to home and offers transportation? Do you need before- and after-camp care?

Finances are another consideration. According to a 2021 Summer Camp Hub survey, 53 percent of parents did not send their kids to summer camp last year because they couldn’t afford it. Parents can keep costs down by selecting a three-day-a-week camp or a half-day camp or choosing to attend for just one or two weeks instead of the whole summer. Also, keep in mind that camps run by not-for-profit organizations, like YMCA’s Camp Ockanickon for boys and YWCA’s Camp Matollionequay for girls, cost considerably less. If your child has dealt with loss or cancer, there are summer camps for them at no cost. Specialty camps such as Camp Firefly (in Burlington, Camden and Gloucester counties) for kids who lost a loved one, Camp Kesem (in Princeton) for kids whose parent has cancer, Happiness is Camping (in Hardwick) for children with cancer and their siblings are no-cost camps.

Next, think about your child. What’s best for them? Are they outgoing or shy? Adventurous or pensive? Do they like a structured camp or do they want to make choices? Are certain activities and skills important, such as cooking, swimming, tennis, theater or robotics? Does your child have food allergies or physical or health challenges? Should the camp be co-ed or single sex?

Ask the Experts

Talk to coaches, teachers and friends for camp suggestions. Search online camp directories like acanynj.org and njfamily.com/camp. Check out camp websites and open houses or visit the camp. Talk with the camp director and be sure to ask if the camp is accredited by the ACA.

Once you’ve determined what you and your child are looking for in a camp, reach out to the ACA for free guidance. “I work one-on-one with parents to find the right camp for their child,” says Flax. “ACA is the only association that accredits camps and we do it with help from experts like the Academy of Pediatrics and the American Red Cross. Accreditation is based on 300 standards. I have visited all these camps. I know the directors. I know the inside skinny. I can tell you how it can fit your needs and those of your child.”

A Camp for Every Kid

Sometimes finding the right fit for your child means sending siblings to different camps. And while this might seem like a logistical nightmare, doing so can deeply benefit both kids. Going to different camps allows each child to really focus on and further develop their own area of interest. It can also push kids to branch out socially when they don’t have their sibling to fall back on.

South Orange mom of two Erica Barton ended up sending her kids to different camps and it turned out to be a very positive decision. “We had been sending my two kids to the same sleepaway camp for a couple of years, but one year my son wanted to try a horseback riding program,” she says. “The camp he had been going to didn’t offer that for his age so he went to a different camp than his sister. He was a little apprehensive because he had never been to sleepaway camp without her, but he ended up having one of his best summers ever! In a way I think it was better because it forced him out of his comfort zone and really gave him a sense of independence.”

—Karen Gibbs is a freelance lifestyle writer based in Louisiana.

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