Gather Round, Campers

By Kelli B. Grant
March 29, 2006

IF YOU'VE GOT KIDS, now's the time to sign them up for summer camp.

Each year, more than 11 million campers head off to a summer of fun. Fees vary widely, but you can expect to spend $200 to $400 a week for sleep-away camps, and $75 to $300 a week for day camps, according to the American Camp Association.

Signing up the kids now means you'll have a wide range of choice when it comes to the type of camp your kids attend, as well as the time periods. Here are 10 tips:

Pick the right camp. No matter what your kid is into, chances are there's a camp that caters to it. At Camp Can Do in Cleveland, Ga., kids can master the fine art of fencing. At Astro Camp in Idyllwild, Calif., kids study the nighttime sky. And if you're willing to indulge such things, at Circus Smirkus in Greensboro, Vt., kids learn how to become a circus performer.

But don't just sign your kid up for what you think sounds like fun. Talk to your child about what he or she wants, says Dr. Christopher Thurber, author of "The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success," a DVD resource for new camper families. "It's about finding the best match for your child's interests, abilities and developmental needs," he says.

With more than 12,000 camps nationwide, narrow down the selection using databases at, or the American Camp Association. You can search by region, activity, special needs and cultural focus.

You might also try free camp-referral services like the National Camp Association or Camp Finders. These help you pick the right camp for your child; however, they do get a fee from camps for each camper referred. Make sure the service you use has a large database of reputable camp clients.

Define "camp." The great outdoors isn't for everyone. If your kid is more attuned to activities indoors, consider learning or arts camps, which offer sophisticated coursework on a wide range of topics. "One of the most popular is technology courses,"; says Virginia Armstrong-Whyte, a spokeswoman for Peterson's, an education publisher that offers a guide of summer opportunities for teens. The most in-demand courses are animation and videogame design. Most programs accept students up to age 18. Minimum age varies by program — after all, you might not be comfortable enrolling your six-year-old in a glassblowing class.

Consider the total cost. The cost to attend doesn't stop at tuition, warns Jeffrey Solomon, president of the National Camp Association, a referral service. Special programs will be extra. At Camp Amity Acres, a Girl Scouts facility in Waretown, N.J., special themed weeks for horseback riding or sailing go for $250 and $330, respectively. Its regular weeklong programs are $120.

Look for nonprofits. Scouts' honor - camps run by nonprofits, public agencies and religious associations are often good deals. Organizations such as the YMCA, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts can offer camps at relatively low cost. That's because the tuition you pay is partly subsidized by the organization, as well as with grants from outside groups. Take Camp Marston, a Y-Camp in Julian, Calif. Each one-week session has three prices listed: a subsidized rate ($395) and two rates that more closely reflect the operating cost incurred ($445 and $495). Families choose which payment tier they can best afford, and the YMCA picks up the rest.

Know what you're paying for. More expensive camps may offer more sophisticated programs. For example, the camp counselors teaching your kid tennis may actually be athletes or coaches instead of high school students. At other camps, funds may go to providing what Thurber calls "a spectacular experience," complete with celebrity appearances and trips to major-league sporting events. At Valley Forge Military Academy's four-week summer camp in Wayne, Pa., your $3,300 fee for the Junior Ranger program (ages 10 and 11) gets you a lot more than the standard archery and craft activities. Your kid can play paintball, ride go-carts and learn to scuba dive, as well as attend field trips to amusement parks and a major-league baseball game. Perks like these cost money, of course. Just make sure you think it's worth the added expense.

Go late. Many camps offer reduced rates for August sessions, says Solomon. That's because more parents want to enroll their kids during June or July to avoid date conflicts for back-to-school. At Camp Awosting for Boys in Morris, Conn., a two-week session starting July 9 is $2,175. If you went to the session starting on Aug. 6, however, you'd pay only $1,990.

Dig for discounts. Sending Junior to the same summer camp you went to as a kid? In addition to teaching him the camp song and offering strategies for color war, be sure to ask about so-called alumni discounts, advises Nancy Diamond, president of Niche Directories, which publishes the camp directory That repeat business could save you up to 15%. Expect a similar price cut if you send two or more of your kids to the same camp. Bar-T Ranch, an equestrian day camp in Gaithersburg, Md., regularly offers two-week sessions for $635 per child. If a second family member attends, he or she pays a reduced rate of $585. If your kid is heading to a day camp, becoming a volunteer could get you a discount - or even free tuition.

Look for financial aid. According to the ACA, nearly 65% of camps offer some level of financial assistance. These so-called "camperships" come in all forms, says Diamond. Check with grant foundations, local philanthropic associations and camping groups. Most aid is need-based, but you can often find grants for a particular interest or activity.

Be sure to also talk to the camps you're considering. Many have endowments to offer aid, and they may be willing to offer additional help, such as a flexible payment schedule.

Be an early bird - for next year. Some of the best sleep-away camp discounts are only available at the end of the season, say, through mid-September. "Generally, the earlier you sign up, the better the rate is," says Ann Sheets, national president for the ACA. You'll end up paying this year's rate for next year's camp - a discount of about 10%.

Investigate refund and cancellation policies. Most camps will be reasonable about refunding your deposit and tuition if you cancel far in advance. But as the camp's opening day approaches, you're less likely to get the full amount back, says Solomon. "Some will prorate the difference back to the family, depending on the reason for leaving," he says. Others have strict no-refund policies. Best to know these things before you sign up.