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Just saying the words, "summer camp" can make people smile. It's hard to forget a summer filled with new friendships and learning new things, whether it involves a sport, cooking over an open fire, identifying wildlife, or stringing a bow and shooting an arrow.

School will be out soon, so it's not too early to make summer plans. Fortunately, there are plenty of summer camp options for everything from the zoo, computer coding and nature, to scouting, sports and cooking experiences. And many local organizations offer both day and residential summer camps.

The camp experience can benefit kids in many ways. It can help them:

  • Mature socially, emotionally, intellectually, morally and physically;
  • Discover and explore their talents, interests and values;
  • Build self-confidence and increase independence as they learn how to navigate relationships away from their parents;
  • Try new things and develop leadership skills.

So, how do you choose a camp that fits your child's personality and needs?

The American Camping Association (ACA) website lists several questions for parents to consider as they make decisions. Here are a few for you to think about.

  •  What is the camp's philosophy? Does it complement your parenting style? Is the camp competitive or cooperative?
  •  What is the camp director's background? At a minimum, a camp director should have a bachelor's degree and camp administration experience.
  •  What is the ratio of counselors to campers? Depending on the age and ability of the campers, the medium range is one staff member for every seven to eight campers.
  •  What are the ages of the counselors? ACA standards recommend that 80 percent or more of the program staff be 18 or older. Additionally, at least 20 percent of the program/administrative staff must have a bachelor's degree.
  •  How are behavioral and disciplinary problems handled? Positive reinforcement, assertive role-modeling and a sense of fair play are generally regarded as key components of camp leadership.

Researching references and camp policies, such as visitation, dealing with homesickness or other adjustment issues is also important.

If you are considering sending your child to camp for the first time this summer, it's helpful to prepare them for the experience. Just because you think they are old enough to go doesn't necessarily mean they are emotionally ready.

Include your child in the camp decision-making process. If you choose a residential camp, be sure they have spent the night away from home and can handle being away from you; overnight at Grandma's doesn't count. Help them understand how to handle homesickness if it occurs.

Also, prepare them to meet people who are different from them. If the camp is outdoors, let them know they will encounter bugs and other creepy-crawly creatures.

More than 14 million children will go to camp this summer. Parents say the camp experience greatly impacts their child's ability to get along with others, willingness to learn something new and how they feel about themselves.

Summer camp can be a home away from home, providing great fun, lasting memories and personal discovery when the camp is right for your child.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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