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posted: 4/17/2013 3:47 PM

How to choose the right summer camp for your kid

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By Kent McDill

For families with children, there are two catalog seasons.

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Come Oct. 1, the holiday catalogs start rolling in, just in case you haven't done your holiday shopping by that point and need some suggestions.

Then, on April 1, the summer camp catalogs arrive.

I am a HUGE proponent of summer camps. I will try to explain why without sounding like someone who just wants to get rid of his kids for several hours a day during the summer (which does play a role).

(I believe couples on the verge of marriage need to discuss "camps'' just as they should discuss "garage sales" and "backyard fire pits." These are the kinds of unknown issues that can tear apart a relationship, just like whether you grab the first parking spot you see at the mall or you drive around and around looking for the absolutely perfect spot.)

When I was a kid, camps weren't a big part of parenting. They weren't necessary. The world was our camp. We could go outside at the conclusion of breakfast and return inside for lunch, go out again and return home for dinner and there was no drama, unless someone severely skinned a knee. Summer days were endless, and there was not a lot of input from parents (usually moms back then) who were able to get things done inside because they knew the kids were having fun outside.

Parents back then didn't have to suffer from the conflicting concerns that their kids are spending too much time inside in front of video monitors versus whether they are getting invited into a white van with no windows when they are outside. It was a simpler time for kids and parents and it absolutely rocked.

Today, you have to watch kids like a hawk, even the well-behaved ones. You just never know, and that really stinks.

So parents have a choice of keeping the kids at home and needing to be camp counselors themselves, or sending the kids to a camp where high school and college kids can entertain the little ones.

When the children are very young, your summer camp choices are usually tied to the park district. Sometimes they are art camps, sometimes they are sports camps, sometimes they are religious camps. It doesn't matter. Find one.

The advantages are multiple. Usually, there is an outdoor component to the camp. Today's children need to spend more time outdoors. It's the activity that first lady Michelle Obama preaches about. And it is difficult for a house parent to organize and supervise outdoor activities while worrying about laundry and cleaning and, for many of us, making money telecommuting.

There is also a social aspect to summer camps. While your kids will probably know someone from school who is also in the camp, they are likely to meet kids from other grade schools or neighboring communities, and that will benefit them as they move up the school ladder and multiple grade schools pour into middle schools.

The only negative, assuming you picked a decent camp, is that you are indeed asking others to watch and engage your children while you do something else. For several hours a day, several days a week, you are farming out your parenting duties. But you do the same when they are in school, and with today's safety concerns regarding unsupervised outdoor play, camps are a nice alternative to a summer of PlayStation or Xbox or Netflix.

Obviously, you need to do your due diligence when choosing a camp (that means doing research). Neighbors can tell you which camp worked and which one didn't. You don't want to send a child to a camp that will make you think you wasted your money.

We did that once. For some reason, our son Dan attended a hockey day camp. His friends were doing it, and it was nearby, and it was a huge waste of time. Dan played some hockey, didn't learn much about playing hockey, but did learn a lot about Adam Sandler's early movies. Somehow, there was always time left over from camp activities for a little video viewing.

As the kids get older, you start considering activity-specific camps. Our Haley went to summer figure skating camp for at least a couple of years. When the kids got old enough to participate in camps affiliated with high school (soccer camp or cross-country camp or cheerleading camp), they did that.

What our kids never did was go to an away camp. That's where the children live away from home for a few days, or perhaps weeks. It's something I always wanted them to do, but I never won that argument.

Just like I never get to park in the first spot that's open at the mall.

• Kent McDill is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Janice, have four children, Haley, Dan, Lindsey and Kyle.

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