As you construct a schema for your summer, plot vacation time, and plan for summer camps, more than anything I think you should build in some unstructured time. Carve out hours, half, or even full days each and every week with an absent itinerary. Wide-open days inspire creativity (in us all) and allow children to stumble upon a little boredom. I would suggest boredom is a helpful tool for everyone here and there, especially our children. Just think of the motivation that comes from it! Read this perspective: What Caine’s Arcade Teaches Us About Modern Parenthood.

Good thing for those of us who are less organized: unstructured time comes without difficulty as the camps fill up and we run out of options. Now (May) is the time to sign up for many camps, so get on it. The unstructured time I mention is only delightful if peppered into a summer filled with adventure and discovery. Summer camps offer a great place and space for fostering independence, building skill and esteem, and forging new friendships. Choosing a camp may feel entirely daunting if your child has special health needs, you have limited money for camp, or you’ve never separated from your child for long periods prior. Here are a few tips and resources I’ve found that may help:

Tips For Choosing A Summer Camp:

  • First, talk with your child about what they would like most from their summer. Like most of us, I tend to assume I know what’s best for my child. Often when I ask, I learn my aim is off target. Your child may surprise you so don’t be afraid to ask a child of any age what they’d like to do. Although most camps start at grade-school age, in my experience many children will start going to camps during the preschool years!
  • Use apps and websites to help vet summer opportunities that meet your needs, fit into your finances, and fit the fancy of your child. Some online tools: Funnerator (a camp-choosing app by zipcode/cost/age) or Red Tricycle Summer Camp Guide (online parenting site), and National Camp Association’s How to Choose A Summer Camp. Don’t be afraid to crowd-source with your own family and friends on Facebook or other social networks–ask for advice now where friends have sent their children with great success!
  • Every child can have an opportunity to attend a summer camp. Here is an incredible list of camps for children with special needs in Washington State. The list of camps is extensive including camps for children with autism, deafness, diabetes, muscular dystrophy, arthritis and many other complex medical needs. Don’t assume your child can’t go or you can’t afford it. Some camps are free of charge like the Stanley Stamm Camp. The opportunities for children this summer sincerely astonish me, look at the list and don’t wait to get involved or signed up!
  • Review the FAAN (Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network) guide on preparing for summer camp if your child has a severe food allergy. Don’t hesitate to review your child’s condition or allergy with potential camp directors now. Trust your instincts–if something seems sloppy or not in place, look elsewhere.
  • Preparing your child for camp begins immediately as you start to vet camps and discuss opportunities, but extends until the day they have already left home. Sleep away camps may require more preparation when it comes to separation; start setting expectations early. To prevent homesickness, prepare now and practice having some sleepovers prior to camp–your child will be delighted and build great independence along the way. And then, be present while they are gone. One of my most precious memories from my own summer camp experiences is the daily postcard my mom sent while I was away. Somehow she even managed to to have one waiting for me at camp on day one. Skipping back to the cabin with a postcard was pure delight.

What else? What are your pearls of wisdom for choosing camps? How many is too many?