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Choosing a Preschool Summer Camp

Everything you need to know to find the right summer program for your child

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If you are looking for some activities away from home to keep your preschooler busy this summer, you might want to consider preschool summer camp. Not limited to sleep-away adventures for bigger kids, summer camps are offered to a variety of age ranges with myriad options including full day, half day, specialty and general.

Camps for preschoolers can be found everywhere. Most popular are ones formed out of pre-established programs in nursery school, day care, preschool or even the local elementary school, although you can find specialty camps that expose your child to a certain sport or activity like dance, cheerleading, gymnastics, art or music.

Similar to the process you'd employ when choosing a preschool, selecting the right summer camp requires research, some legwork and the input of your child as to how he'd like to spend his summer. Here's how to find the right program.

  • Is Your Child Ready?
    Many parents see summer camp as a great way to get their preschooler ready to attend preschool or kindergarten. But, like sending a child to preschool, there are some things to consider before deciding to send your child to camp. Has he been away from you for long periods of time? Is she potty-trained? Does he follow directions and transition from one activity to another without too much incident? These key indicators can help you make your decision. And if you conclude she isn't quite ready yet, it's OK, there will always be an opportunity next year.
  • General or Specialty
    General camps for preschoolers tend to offer a gamut of age-appropriate activities including music, dance, sports, group games and arts and crafts. Specialty camps focus on one area and offer an extended look at a particular activity. Choosing which type to send your child to depends to a large extent on his personality and the length of time of the camp. Will he get bored playing sports for more than an hour at a time? Does the camp offer a break in the form of other activities, whether it be snack, playtime or outside fun (if the camp is limited to indoor play).
  • Full-Day or Half-Day
    When deciding what type of program to enroll your child, you need to consider your child's energy level, the cost, transportation and the activities that are offered throughout the program. Even if your child attends preschool or day care full time, camp can be demanding on a small body. Full-day programs should include lunch as well as a rest period in some format -- watching a movie, story time, quiet play or even an actual nap. Find out if it is possible to to start with the half-day program and increase to full-day if you find your child is doing well.
  • Is it Age-Appropriate?
    No matter what type of camp your enroll your preschooler in, fun should be the focus above all else, keeping competition to a minimum. Free play should be encouraged, as should projects and games that are tailored to the 3-5 age group. Equipment should be clean, safe and geared towards young children. Counselors should be trained to work with small children and how to deal with issues that can arise with this age group, including learning to go to the bathroom and separation anxiety. Camps that accept a wide-range of age groups should keep older and younger somewhat separate.
  • Seek Out an Expert Opinion
    There are a few groups that offer accreditation (assures that a camp is up to certain safety and educational standards) and recommendations, including the American Camping Association, KidsCamps.com and the National Camp Association National Camp Association. You can also ask your child's teacher, day care provider and even other parents about their experiences with sending their preschooler to camp. Libraries are also a fountain of information, often hosting camp fairs and maintaining databases on local camps in the area. Ask your librarian to find out what is available.
  • Location and Transportation
    How will your child get to camp? Is it by bus or are you required to drop your child off? If this is the first time your child is attending camp, a day camp near your home might provide some reassurance to both you and your child. If a camp is close by, you can get there quickly in an emergency which is comforting for many parents.
  • Who is on Staff?
    Counselors should have experience dealing with young children. Many camps often hire preschool teachers and day care providers to act as counselors, some employ teens. Is there a nurse or doctor on the campus? If there are swimming instructors, are they Red Cross-certified?
  • Cost
    It's important to find out what the total cost of the program will be. Is there a charge for bus service? Are meals included? Are make-up days or refunds available if your child gets sick? Are there additional fees to use certain equipment or supplies? It's important to ask these questions ahead of time.
  • What to Look for No Matter What Type of Camp You Choose
    To meet an child's individual needs, you want to find a camp that offers small groups and low child-teacher or counselor ratios. A counselor to camper ratio of 1 to 4 or 5 is a good policy. If the camp is located indoors, all of the equipment or toys should be clean, safe and in easy reach of little arms and hands. If the camp takes place outside make sure it is fenced in and ask if the staff is trained in first aid, including CPR. If you see something you don't like or are uncertain of a policy, ask the director or administrator for qualification.
  • A Special Note on Pools at Camp
    If your child is attending camp where there she will be swimming and participating in pool activities, find out how many lifeguards there are and what the policy is on letting your child wear swimming aids. If your child is attending a camp where there is a pool, even if she won't be swimming, it's important to inquire about the safety measures the camp has in place, including locked gates, pool alarms, staff training and how often a lifeguard is on duty. A pool full of cool water can be very appealing for a child on a hot day and it's not out of the question that a child could wander off away from their group in seek of having some water fun. It's important that the camp has safety measures in place to prevent a tragedy.
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