The Los Angeles Daily News

To target the camp that's right for your child, it's time to take aim

By Valerie Kuklenski, Staff Writer

Half the country may be in a deep freeze, but February is still the month for parents to start thinking about summer camps for their kids. Just like kids, these camps come in all shapes and sizes. Some are adrenalin-rush adventures. Some offer focused instruction in everything from movie production to opera to the culinary arts. All try to broaden kids' horizons while school is out.

Having so many choices — there are some 7,000 resident camps nationwide — can overwhelm parents trying to match their kids to the best possible experience.

The Internet has some good tools for short-listing them, leaving a more manageable group of possible destinations. And most of the services are free of charge to families.

"We're sort of one-stop shopping for parents who are looking to give their children the best of a summer opportunity," said Joanne Paltrowitz, owner of a New York-based clearinghouse for summer camps called The Camp Experts & Teen Summers.

Her 20-year-old advisory service, with offices around the country and a Web site at www.campexperts.com, helps parents make informed decisions about resident camps, outdoor adventures, language immersion programs and teen-targeted community-service opportunities.

Specific focus or just for fun?

"A lot of parents are very, very interested in just allowing a kid to have a good time because they work very hard in school," she said. "And others want a more focused situation, so if they're into computers or theater, they can focus on that."

Some sites, such as www.kidscamps.com, are essentially advertising guides with some ability for the user to sift through offerings based on location, price range or genre.

Others provide an endorsement, such as the American Camp Association's nationwide campparents.org site, which only lists camps that are ACA-accredited.

Campexperts.com goes as far as personally visiting every camp that it lists. And these visits are during the peak summer season, not while the camps are quiet.

"It's most important that we see the programs in action," Paltrowitz said. "Then you can size up what kind of children go there, and you see the interaction of the directors and counselors with the children. You can see them handle problems."

Parents who click on the "request info" link on the campexperts.com site can fill out a form that gives Paltrowitz and her staff the basic guidance they need to suggest 10 to 15 targeted options. They follow up with a call to the family to discuss less formulaic matters such as the camper's personality traits and which past camp experiences were favorites.

Using the child's psychological profile to whittle the list, Camp Experts then sends the family a package with detailed information on the recommended options.

ACA's campparents.org provides a filtered list of choices for camp facilities that meet state-specific health and safety regulations.

"The thing that most people don't realize is there is no government regulation or oversight of camps," said Andrew Townsend, director of Kennolyn Camps in the Santa Cruz Mountains and president of the Northern California section of the ACA.

"So while accreditation may not be perfect," he said, "it's something that says these camps went out of their way to go through hoops and gain some kind of status."

Still, a lack of accreditation need not be a deal breaker, Townsend said.

"I have sent my daughter to an unaccredited camp," he said. "My advice to people is simply ask why. In our case, they were only open two weeks a summer, and it wasn't (economically) practical (to pay for accreditation)."

Another reason a camp may not seek accreditation is that it operates under the auspices of a school, and the school is accredited.

This is "a perfectly valid reason," Townsend said.

While Paltrowitz recommends an advance visit to a camp facility, many directors or senior camp staff at high-end camps are willing to visit prospective families at their homes.

Paddling a canoe off distant shores

And some camps offer counselor escorts on airline flights when enough campers travel together, making it easier for parents to consider a camp in Maine, Massachusetts or North Carolina.

"The camps and programs on the East Coast really want children from the West Coast," said Paltrowitz, noting it makes for "a better mix of children."

Experts say camp fairs are another good way to learn about multiple camps in one outing and meet senior staff face-to-face (a list of suggested questions for camp personnel are in the media center section of www.acacamps.org).

Parents can collect dozens of brochures at these events and later thin the stack as their changing schedules or budgets dictate. And it's a good idea to involve kids in the decision, experts said, giving them three or four brochures and asking, "Which do you like?"

When the list is narrowed to just a few camps, a personal reference may be the most valuable factor. Parents should ask for names and phone numbers of families near them who are willing to discuss their experiences. If possible, parents also should get a veteran camper to talk to their own prospective camper.

"The kids' questions are very different from the parents'," Townsend said. "The kid wants to know 'what do I eat, where do I sleep, what do you do there?' I've never had a kid ask me about the staff ratio or what the food service employees' experience is, or how injuries are handled," he said.

Paltrowitz and Townsend agree that parents and kids should ask plenty of questions before taking the plunge.

"In general, don't rely on one avenue of information," Townsend said. "I don't think camp is something you buy first time out."

Camp resources in a nutshell

• What's Up for Kids hosts its free Camp Fair 2007: Kids, Camps and Connections, 10 a.m to p.m. March 10 at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas, and 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. March 11 at Crossroads School in Santa Monica. Check the exhibitors link on www.whatsupforkids.com to get the latest list of participating camps and their Web sites.

Kidscamps.com, a database of more than 10,000 summer camp programs, is marking its 12th anniversary by offering 12 camp tuition prizes — six at $500 and six at $250 — payable directly to a camp this summer. All the particulars and the entry form are on the site. The deadline is midnight April 15.

• The American Camp Association has two informative sites. Campparents.org helps the user shop accredited camp facilities according to region, type of camp, price range, special interests and other criteria. Its www.acacamps.org site offers guidance on how to decide whether your child is ready for a resident camp, how to choose a camp and what to ask before you sign up.

• The Camp Experts & Teen Summers (www.campexperts.com) scopes out traditional and specialty camps for you, offering, in some cases, a more honest assessment than the camp's own sales materials deliver. It also serves the teen market with travel programs, community-service projects and college-level courses.