Parents usually start researching the perfect summer experience for their child too late in the season. In many cases, the only session in which their child can participate - nestled between baseball season, the family vacation and the start of school - is already at capacity.

Parents usually start researching the perfect summer experience for their child too late in the season.

In many cases, the only session in which their child can participate - nestled between baseball season, the family vacation and the start of school - is already at capacity. The best way to avoid this situation is to plan your summer early. Done correctly, the process of finding the right camp can take an entire year's worth of research, but the reward is great.

If you are trying to decide on a traditional camp experience, here's a timetable:

FALL AND WINTER

Do the research
With over 11,000 camps in the United States, it is important to come up with a list of questions to guide you. By doing so, you can narrow the possibilities to a manageable few. Here's a handy list of questions to help narrow your search.

What do I want in a camp? Single sex or co-ed? Religious or non-denominational? Sports-oriented, nature-oriented or a mixture of both? Close-by camp within driving distance or am I comfortable with a plane flight? Do I want lakes or mountains (or will just a river do)? 1, 2 or 4 weeks in length? Is the culture or personality of the camp competitive or nurturing? Are activities required or is there free choice by interest?
To do this research, it is helpful to do the following:

Talk to other children and parents. Referrals from other families with camp exper-ience are a great way to get the real scoop. Remember, it's sometimes difficult to recognize when your child may need a different program than his or her best buddy. Watch DVDs and talk to your children. DVDs are especially helpful for children to learn what camp is all about and can enable you to discuss camp with your child in order to assess their readiness. Children enjoy seeing the campers and the activities. When talking to your child about their interests, be open to the unexpected. Search the Internet. The Internet is full of links to camp websites. You can search by region or camp focus. If using this method, it is a good idea to use additional references from the camps, as well as an independent advisory service. Attend a camp fair. Schools, malls and community centers sponsor annual fairs to allow parents to see many pro-grams in a central venue. Directors of overnight camps, day camps and teen pro-grams are usually present. Check this magazine's camp listings for more information. Talk to camp directors. Each director should have a clear sense of what children should gain from their experiences and how to go about teaching these skills. If the director cannot adequately answer your questions about camp philosophy, home communication or supervision, then it's probably not the right camp for your child. In-person meetings. Many camps host slide shows, gatherings or reunions where you have an opportunity to meet the directors and speak with current campers. Some offer visiting days in the spring when you can go and see the camp facility. Talk to a camp advisor. Tips on Trips and Camps is one of the many resources to use in locating the perfect program for your child. Camp advisors can help a family compare programs, obtain references, determine the right questions to ask directors and, ultimately, find the program that suits each child. They have seen the camp and share their first hand observations.
NOW

Early bird discounts
Once you have determined which camp suits your child, you can take advantage of early bird discounts. These discounts usually hold the cost of camp down to the previous year's tuition or take a few hundred dollars off the price of residential camping. And when your neighbors are stressing out about what their child will be doing in the coming summer, you will be sitting pretty with your child already enrolled.

Camp provides an opportunity for growth that should not be under-estimated. It is an integral part of a child's educational and social development, providing a haven from our technologically and academically driven society. It certainly is not a vacation in the strictest sense of the word. Since there are programs to fit the needs of any child, explore the range of options available.

The camp experience is an opportunity that cannot be replicated elsewhere. And you might want to make appointments to visit a few camps that could be of interest for next summer.
Happy camping!


By Eve Eifler, co-director of Tips on Trips and Camps, Baltimore, MD