Camptastic! We have 10 tips for picking the right camp for your child

From The Orange County Register

By Jenelyn Russo – Contributing Writer

Three kids at the beach

What could be more O.C. than a surf-theme summer camp like Salty Grom in Huntington Beach? From left are Trevor Wilt and Lindsey and Nathan Feher. ROBERT ZALESKI, CONTRIBUTING PHOTOGRAPHER

For many children in Orange County, the summer season is synonymous with camps, experiences that can range from academics to athletics to the arts and everything in between. But with so many choices for parents on a quest to find the right camp, it’s tough to know where to start.

We’ve talked to several local experts and gathered tips on how families can approach the summer camp experience with their kids.

So whether you’re looking for camps that explore new interests, focus on strengthening specific skills or provide a time to re-energize, here’s some information to help make this summer’s camp experience a positive one for both your kids and your family.

1 – Time it right
With March as the unofficial launch of summer camp season, parents should get ahead of the game by starting their research early, said Kimberly Harnish, manager of youth and family services at Girls Incorporated of Orange County.

“By April, enrollment will likely begin and many camps will have limited space due to staff ratios,” she said. “Get started early so you are prepared instead of overwhelmed.”

2 – Narrow the choices
Parents should focus on the uniqueness of a child when considering summer camp choices, says Michelle King, a therapist from The Paved Road Individual & Family Therapy in Newport Beach.

“Camps can be a wonderful way to expose your child to a new activity that they may not have had the space to try during the school year,” said King. “Camps can also be the opportunity to enhance an already active skill, taking it to the next level.”

It’s also smart for parents to ask their child about interests and expectations, while keeping the needs of the family in mind, said Harnish.

“Parents should talk with their children about what they hope to get out of the summer camp experience,” she said. “Are they looking to step completely out of the box and try something new? Do they want to go it alone or attend camp with a friend? Are they ready for an overnight camp or is a day camp a better fit?

“Additionally, look for camps that work with your family’s overall summer schedule and needs. If your family is planning for vacation time or if your child is enrolled in summer school, consider camp choices that accommodate flexibility.”

3 – Focus on fun
Whether parents look for academics, arts or athletics in a summer program, the focus should be placed on fun, said Stacy Pae, owner of Art Smart Studio & Gallery in Tustin.

“Fun is a requisite for a successful program and ensures that your child enjoys and excels at what they do,” she said. “But when a child is forced to participate in an activity, fun is the first thing to go out the door for both parent and child.”

Harnish says she believes a healthy balance of summer programming with equal importance on reducing “summer slide” – the decline of a student’s performance over the summer months – can help reduce achievement gaps for kids.

“But summer learning does not have to be ‘pen and paper’ academics,” Harnish said. “A great program can integrate academics in innovative ways to produce positive results and happy summer smiles.”

4 – Ask the right questions
Knowing your child’s personality, temperament and learning style will help parents decide what questions to ask of a camp, Harnish said.

“Look first at the camp’s philosophy or mission. Does it align with your parenting philosophy? Is it more cooperative or competitive? Is it faith-based? Will it challenge your child?” she said.

“And find out what a ‘day in the life’ is at the camp. Is there a structured program in place? How much time is spent on each activity? What about this camp experience makes it unique?”

Marriage and family therapist Karen Ogden of Costa Mesa advises parents to do their own homework in addition to speaking with a camp representative.

“Check into their licensing and accreditations, and find out what their safety protocol is,” Ogden said. “Gather information from those who have experiences with a camp by asking if you can speak to former parents and camp participants.”

5 – Check out the counselors
Because kids spend most of their day with camp staff, it is important to thoroughly check into the team that will be with your child.

“Ask what the staff/counselor return and turnover rate is,” Harnish said.

In addition, she suggests asking whether or not camp management does background checks on its counselors, about the staff-to-camper ratio, if the staff is trained in CPR and first aid, and how the staff deals with conflict.

Pae says it’s important to look at the counselors’ level of training as well. “Are the camp counselors and instructors able to serve as mentors and have a positive influence on my children? Are they patient with young kids?”

Ogden says that parents shouldn’t feel intrusive about researching counselors’ backgrounds.

“Don’t rely on the camp to do all the homework,” said Ogden. “And trust your child. If she comes home talking about a counselor who just doesn’t feel right, ask about her experiences at camp. Your child’s intuition is usually spot on.”

6 – Ask your child
“Selecting a camp with your children is a wonderful way to develop their brains. The more decisions that your children make in life, the more practice their brains get in sorting out choices and weighing tough decisions,” said King. “Allowing your children to decide from a range of choices you have provided will grow their abilities in decision-making.”

7 – Control the costs
A summer schedule filled with camps can get expensive, so research money-saving options up front.

“Many camps offer early bird specials, sibling discounts and partial or full scholarships,” said Harnish. “Research so you aren’t surprised by possible additional fees.”

“If you’re able to take some time off from work, consider creating your own ‘camp’ at home,” said Pae. “Outdoor activities like bicycling, swimming, going to the beach and playing at the park can be free or minimal charge.”

8 – Plan for snacks and hydration
Shonda Brown, a clinical dietitian at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, suggests packing healthy drinks and snacks for summer camp.

“Fresh fruit, trail mix, veggies and dip, peanut butter and crackers, yogurt or pretzels are great snack options,” said Brown. “Include a beverage to keep children hydrated. Children will typically drink more flavored beverages, such as infused water, compared to water alone. Avoid caffeinated beverages, sodas or energy drinks as these may contain too much sugar and will not aid in hydration.

“Encourage fruits and vegetables, as they are a great source of fluids. Let your children pick out their own water bottle. Colorful, crazy straws are also fun for kids.”

9 – Keep it allergy-safe
If food is served as a part of the camp, parents should be proactive in helping to control their kids’ environment.

“Make contact with the camp and complete all health care paperwork to assure that personnel who may be taking care of your child are appropriately informed of the food allergy and what steps to take in an emergency,” said Brown. “Find out how the camp manages the safety of children with food allergies and if they have prevention protocols in place.

“Educate your child about safe and unsafe foods, how to read a food label, and how and when to tell an adult if an allergic reaction occurs,” she said.

10 – Ease fears beforehand
Attending camp may spark fears in some kids, but there are steps parents can take ahead of time to make the experience a success.

“Talk about the camp with your kids, show pictures and videos and try to access their anxiety level,” said Ogden. “Reassure them that they can contact you at any time and that you’ll be close by should they need you.”

“A soothing experience when a child is struggling is to help them safely picture the experience,” said King. “If possible, visit the location and walk around, even meet staff and connect your child to a friendly face before camp begins,” King said.

A range of themes
The days of making macaroni necklaces at camp are long gone. Now, your kids can learn to code, surf, design their own clothes, or maybe even write their first novel!

Fashion camp
Fashion Camp OC

At Fashion Camp OC, children get the chance to create, sketch, design and sew their own projects, from skirts to shorts to handbags. It’s the summer camp experience for the budding fashion designer in your home. Spring break camps are also available March 30 through April 11; mini camps start at $35 per day and sewing workshops start at $99.

  • The District at Tustin Legacy: 2477 Park Ave., Tustin; 714-259-0946
  • The Shops at Mission Viejo: 555 The Shops at Mission Viejo, Suite 598, Mission Viejo; 949-364-1856

Music camp
School of Rock

Rock ‘n’ roll this summer with School of Rock, where kids take the stage and rock on with instruction from professional musicians on keyboards, vocals, guitar and drums. Five-day camps start at $425.

  • 530 E. First St., Tustin; 714-975-9116

Computer camp
iD Tech

These co-ed camps for the 21st century expose children to computer-based STEM learning experiences such as programming, robotics and video game design.

  • Hosted at University High School in Irvine: Designed for ages 6-9, and half-day camps start at $399 per week. Full-day camps start at $798 per week.
  • Hosted at UC Irvine: Classes for ages 7-12 and 13-17. Basic day camp ranges from $799-$1,079 per week. 888-709-TECH

Surf camp
Salty Grom

Surf’s up at Salty Grom Surf Camp, where your little grom can have fun learning beginning or intermediate surf skills at five-day camps in Huntington Beach. Fun in the sun and the ocean for kids 8-16. Weeklong camps start at $315.

  • Bolsa Chica State Beach:

Near lifeguard stand 22; 714-330-3350

Visual and performing arts camp
Orange County School of the Arts

You can let your child explore the arts this summer through the many programs offered by Orange County School of the Arts Foundation. From ballroom dancing to creative writing to film production and musical theater, these visual and performance art camps are designed to enrich your young artist’s summer months. Prices vary depending on length of class and student ages. Visit website for exact pricing.

  • Orange County High School of the Arts: 1010 N. Main St., Santa Ana; 714-560-0900, ext. 5630 or 3259

Fishing camp
Dana Wharf

Let your child learn the fundamentals of fishing with these camps that offer an adventure on a private boat each day off Dana Point Harbor. Weeklong camp starts at $489.

  • 888-224-0603

Contact the writer: @JenelynRusso on Twitter