Throughout childhood and into our teenage years, summer is about adventure and discovery.
The academic year is about following directions. You’re told what classes to take and what to study. You’re tested and graded. You are expected to perform at a certain level.
But summer is about making your own choices, exploring the world at your own pace. It’s a time to keep your mind open and allow your spirit to wander free, to seize upon whatever captures your attention and follow it wherever it may lead.
As your child enters their pre-teen and early teenage years, their summers will become increasingly ripe with opportunities to experience new things, gain new perspectives, and expand their horizons. These are the years your child will start getting serious about their academic, artistic, or athletic interests. These are also the years during which they may find unexpected new interests — interests that may sustain them through high school, college, and even into their career field.
Summer is the perfect time for your child to explore their interests and develop new ones. Unfettered from testing and grades, children are more apt to take risks in the summer than during the school year. They will challenge themselves more if they are in environments that encourage them to explore.
Summer is also the season to combat “brain drain,” the creeping loss of learning that occurs between school years. And perhaps most importantly, summer gives your child the chance to venture outside the bubble of their school or neighborhood, to meet new people with fascinating and diverse points of view.
Because summer is such a valuable opportunity for your child, you don’t want to wait until it’s too late to start searching for an educational summer camp.
Start your preliminary research in the fall or winter.
If your child has never attended an educational summer program, it’s a good idea to start your search early so you have plenty of time to familiarize yourself with the many options available. You may find that educational programs are different in format and style than the outdoor camps and athletic clinics your child may have attended in the past.
Plus, some educational summer camps are popular and in high demand. Popular programs will have sections that fill up in the winter. Larger camps with more staff can often take enrollees later in the spring.
This guide will help you find the “perfect” educational summer camp for your child, but what does that mean? “Perfect,” of course, means different things to different families. The perfect summer educational camp for your child depends on your child’s interests and abilities, their goals, and your family’s goals.
Still, there are few factors to consider as you think about the “perfect” educational summer camp.
At ages 10 and 11, pre-adolescents start to become more sophisticated in their thinking. They may begin to outgrow the neighborhood day camp.
This can be a great age for children to have their first sleepaway experiences and move on to camps with broader and deeper offerings. Children at this age are more communicative with adults than they will be in a few years; they are often receptive to guidance from caring adults who can help them transition gracefully to being away from home.
By ages 12 and 13, adolescence has arrived. It’s a tumultuous phase, with confusing bodily changes and rapid, frequent swings between child and adult behavior. During these ages, children start to develop their identities and become independent.
Peer pressure is prevalent throughout adolescence, and children can get swept along easily. It’s important they develop a clear sense of self and have opportunities to practice making their own decisions. Places where they can try on different hats and reinvent themselves can be useful to their growth.
You may want a program that encourages their curiosity, taking them past the surface level of subjects with hands-on projects organized by an expert curriculum team.
Older teens may benefit from a pre-college experience, academically, socially, and emotionally: meeting people from different parts of the country and world, learning to live away from home, navigating campus, and thinking about what subject areas they’re curious about and want to pursue further.
Teens can begin exploring career paths. They can benefit from a rich environment in which they have opportunities to make many choices. It’s important for teens to learn balance between academics, taking care of themselves, cultural pursuits, healthy social lives, and athletics.
The teenage years are an excellent time for young people to engage in trying to find their purpose, the place or places where their interests and strengths intersect with doing something that will have a meaningful impact on the world. We know that people who have a sense of purpose, and who can act on it, lead much more fulfilling lives.
Do you want a camp where your child can focus intensely on a single subject area, one where they can explore new areas, or both?
High-quality educational summer camps can offer both day and overnight options.
If you choose a day program, ask if it provides transportation for your child to get to camp. Look for flexibility within the day, so your child can come early and stay late, as needed.
If you’re looking for the full pre-college experience, an overnight program might be the best option for your child. Reports from colleges and universities across the U.S. are that many students simply are not prepared for the independence of college. They are often better prepared academically than they are socially and emotionally. Better to get in some practice living away from home prior to the first year of college. The risks are lower during the summer. Plus, a good pre-college experience will not treat high school students like college students. The program will be a bridge between home and life as an adult college student. Good pre-college programs provide more support and supervision than what first-year college students receive. This means more guidance and coaching, which increases the chances that students will arrive at college truly ready to take advantages of all of the incredible opportunities it offers.
Educational summer camps can be as short as one week and as long as seven (a few are much longer). Each program has its reasons for its specific length.
Here at EXPLO, for example, we’ve learned through experience that three weeks hits the “sweet spot.”
We can’t tell you how much your family can afford for an educational summer camp. Your budget is unique to your family.
However, as you compare tuition prices for various summer programs, keep in mind that lower-cost programs have to cut costs somewhere. That may mean a higher staff-to-student ratio, fewer field trips, no on-campus nurse (which means medical decisions are put in the hands of untrained adults), and technology that is out of date. Some camps will have on-campus dining services — similar to a university — while others will save money in that area by providing picnic-style dining options.
Now that you have a sense of the perfect educational summer camp for your child, how do you go about finding one that fits your family’s criteria? To help you stay organized, on task, and arrive at the best decision for your child, we’ve outlined a 10-step process.
It’s impossible to say precisely how many summer camps exist in the United States, but the American Camp Association lists 14,000, nearly 50 percent of which report “some relationship to schools or school curricula.” That’s not even taking into account the many excellent programs that are not on the ACA because they are not just a camp.
Needless to say, you have plenty of options to choose from. As you start your search for an educational summer camp, be prepared to compile an extensive list and then gradually whittle down your choices.
Most searches (for anything) these days begin on Google or another online search engine. Search engines are useful for getting an idea of the breadth of summer camp options available.
Search engine tips:
Just as you can find listings of restaurants, vacation destinations, and doctors online, there are a number of websites that list summer camps and programs. Most of these let you choose your search criteria, such as size, age, location, and subject area. To segment your choices, look for an option like “filter” or “advanced search.”
Searches on online listing sites usually lead to capsulized descriptions of each camp, along with relevant statistics, contact information, and links to their website. Some include reviews from other families. But be aware, when there are only a few reviews (or none), they may not be representative of all the families who have attended.
Online listings of summer programs include (but are not limited to):
You might also want to go “old school” and peruse lists that have been curated by local publications, such as the 2018 Boston.com Guide to Summer Camps, or summer camp listings from Time Out New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles.
Most (if not all) educational summer camps have websites where you can learn more about their programming and what makes them different. These websites are, of course, designed to make each camp look good, but they are good starting points. Many camp websites include video testimonials from campers and families, sample schedules, and other features that can help you get a feel for the program.
Here is some crucial information to look for when visiting a summer program’s website:
Digital tools will only take you so far. For the next few steps, enlist the help of experts who, more than likely, will be happy to advise you.
It's important to understand that the summer camp or summer program experience is a continuance of your child’s education. A referral agent provides unbiased opinions on camps and programs that we personally visit, and ensures a hands-on approach to finding the best fit for your child.
— Joanne Paltrowitz, The Camp Experts + Teen Summers
If you live in a highly-populated metropolitan area, such as New York City, you can be inundated with advertising for summer programs. It can be hard to pick out the quality programs that align with your needs.
Referral agents can help. Referral agents are professional experts on summer camps and educational programs who will use their expertise to help you find the camp that best fits your child and your goals. Think of a referral agent as a “personal shopper” for summer camps — except referral agents are paid in commissions from the camps, not by you.
A summer camp fair is an opportunity to meet and talk with staff members from several different camps, all at the same time and all in the same place.
To find a reputable summer camp fair, talk with other families you trust about fairs they have attended. So you won’t have to spend all your weekends traveling from fair to fair, focus on bigger fairs with plenty of options
If you’ve been following the 10-step process so far, you’ve created a list of educational summer camps, read up on them online, and consulted with other parents and referral agents to winnow down your list. The only thing left is to get in touch with your leading contenders.
Some of the best educational summer programs aren’t just places to send your children; they’re valuable information sources in their own right.
Many camps will offer free email newsletters that include information about the camp and important registration dates, as well as expert tips on parenting and education, book reviews, videos, and website recommendations. Getting on an email mailing list is an excellent way to start learning about a camp’s community and philosophy without making too much of a commitment.
Despite all the digital technology at our disposal, the phone is still a great tool for reaching out and forging connections.
When you call an educational summer camp or program, pay attention to who is on the other end. Have you reached a phone bank? A receptionist? Your best source of information will be someone who actually works in the program and has personal knowledge of the experience your child will have.
9 Questions to Ask On Your First Phone Call With an Educational Summer Camp
Finally, it’s time to meet with camp staff in person and ask your questions. Because many educational camps are hosted on university campuses, not all choose to offer tours. But when they do, it shows they have a good relationship with the university and are focused on helping families make good decisions.
Whether you’re taking a campus tour or attending an informational meeting, it’s good to come prepared. Write down your questions and bring them with you. Find out ahead of time who will be speaking or leading the session. Will you have the opportunity to hear from a high-level administrator? What about families or alumni who have been through the program?
If you can’t make it to an informational meeting or campus tour, some programs provide online sessions or allow families to schedule personal appointments to meet with someone from the camp.
In some ways, searching for an educational summer camp is like searching for a new employee. Your final step is to check references.
Many camps will have designated families that have been through their programs as “reference families.” Reference families are happy to discuss their experiences, answer your questions, and describe the program and its outcomes from their insider’s perspective.
Some programs will only offer a few families. High-quality programs will offer a range of reference families. Look for reference families that had similar goals as yours.
Now that you’ve learned the 10 steps for finding the perfect educational summer camp for your child, you can begin working through them. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time to complete each step thoroughly and to carefully consider each of your options.
Also remember, your child — the soon-to-be camper — should be integral to the process. Keep the lines of communication open with your child so you can find a camp they’re as excited about as you are. You may even want to have your child call each of your final choices. (It’s a good sign if a camp is willing to chat with a potential attendee.)
For you and your child, your final choice of educational summer camp is a personal decision, a combination of meeting your criteria and “feel.”
It’s not unlike touring colleges as a prospective student. At some point, you step on a campus and think, “Wow, this one feels different. I can see myself here.” The right summer camp will evoke the same feelings in you and your child when you visit the camp, when you speak on the phone with staff, and when you speak with reference families.
If you complete the 10-step search process outlined in this guide, when you’ve found “the one,” you’ll know it.