Organizers offer pointers on picking the right program for your child.

It’s hard to start thinking about summer when the kids aren’t even out of school. But it’s never too early to start planning activities such as day camps, many of which open registration before spring break.

With a wide range of camps in a broad array of categories—the arts, sports and STEM to name just a few—it can be hard to figure out how to choose the right one. Many camp organizers suggest getting input from your child.

“Start talking to the kids about what is interesting to them,” advises Christine Hill, director of continuing and professional studies at the Columbus College of Art & Design. CCAD offers weeklong, half-day workshops for students in grades 1-12. The camps include traditional painting, printmaking, drawing, digital media, film and video, and fashion design.

“Parents should be mindful of the things kids enjoy that they haven’t had a lot of time to enjoy throughout the school year,” Hill recommends. “What have they always wanted to do and haven’t had the chance to try, or what skills do they want to improve on now that they have the time?”

How much say should your child have in the final decision? Wendy Frantz, summer camp coordinator for the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, says age often is the determining factor. “It’s dependent on the child, but a 6-year-old may not get as much of a vote as a 9- or 10-year-old,” she says. “But take time to go through a camp guide with your child and let them pick out different activities that might interest them.”

CRPD offers camps at sites all over the city, with themes including sports, horseback riding and even Columbus police and fire exploration.

Rhonda Tipple, an Ostrander mother of two, likes to choose a camp based on the learning component. “I feel like it’s a great experience whenever I can provide fun that involves learning,” Tipple says.

Her 10-year-old daughter, Mia, has enjoyed the camps at the Stratford Ecological Center in Delaware and the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Tipple is also sending her 3-year-old son, Jake, to the Stratford Ecological Center this summer. “It’s a self-sustaining farm, and they’ll teach the kids about recycling and reusing,” Tipple says. “The kids will make bread and pie, and collect eggs. They start them at a young age.”

Before signing up for a summer program, be sure to do some research. The American Camp Association recommends checking for ACA accreditation, which the organization says “means that a camp cares enough to undergo a thorough peer review of its operation—from staff qualifications and training to crisis management.” Other good questions include finding out what kind of training the counselors undergo, whether staff members are required to have background checks, and the ratio of counselors to campers.

Another thing to consider: the refund policy. “It sounds crazy, but especially when you are signing up in advance, know if they are hanging onto the fee,” Hill says. “We [at CCAD] don’t charge a fee until you are one week out of the class. Know the hidden costs of a program. Are you going to be buying materials or equipment to participate?”

Sometimes, camp can be a good way to test out subjects of interest for a child’s future. The PAST Foundation, located near the Ohio State University campus, has a variety of summer offerings through its Bridge Program—most of them STEM- and arts-focused. “Everything we do is designed thinking and solving a problem or challenge,” says Andy Bruening, Bridge Program director. “At the end of each week, there’s always a presentation of learning. I like to tell parents these types of camps help prepare their kids for a career. They’ll explore and see things that may become their job in the future. Kids might want to learn more about coding or Lego robotics. Our camps give them a lot of experiences.”

Whether they’ll attend for just a week or for the whole summer, Frantz of CRPD encourages parents to talk to their children about adjusting to camp. “It’s like going to school,” she explains. “Talk to them about what will happen. If your child has anxiety, visit the site with them before you go. Many of our camps are at the local community centers.”

And, while summer programs can keep kids active and even provide full-time care while school’s not in session, some organizers advise parents not to fall into the overscheduling trap.

“I do think during this summer period, it’s important for kids to have structured time doing something,” CCAD’s Hill says. “But if you are pushing them to do something too similar to their academics, you might be teaching them to not love school. Balance that with time the kids are not structured, when they can dig into reading a book or playing with friends. Kids need some time to decompress.”