One of the best ways to explore summer camp options when the winter cold keeps thoughts of summer seem far away is to attend a camp fair. Camp Fair season begins this year in early January. There are several camp fairs coming up this winter; visit our Public Calendar to see the listings. The daunting part is figuring out what to do when you get there. Camp fairs can seem overwhelming: serpentine rows of camps all vying for your attention like aggressive maitre d’s at competing restaurants. You can’t stop and visit each one, but what if you miss the one best match for your child?
Fortunately, there is help. We asked experienced Camp Fair Organizers and Camp Directors around New England for their advice on how parents can navigate a camp fair in order to emerge not only unscathed, but successful.
What’s my strategy?
WILLY THERRIEN, Director of Camp Takodah: First, allow yourself enough time to visit with a number of camps. Too often, parents try to squeeze a camp fair in between other commitments and get overwhelmed at the prospect of seeing 50 - 60 camps represented in one place. This is a rare opportunity for you to visit in person with a director or staff member - and there are many to choose from! If a camp looks interesting, take some time to visit and learn more. Even if your kids are still a bit too young, the camp may hold some interest for you in years ahead. Dive in and talk to the directors; they are nice folks, and the great ones won't pressure you to make a decision. They want what's best for your kids!
RUTH RICH, former organizer of the SummerScape Camp Fair: We would encourage an open mind. The range of possibilities offered is exciting; many parents may not have even considered different camp options. It is also important to assess the needs of your children. Are they prepared for and interested in an overnight experience? Do you need a small day camp that’s local and highly structured? Strike up conversations with representatives at the camp booths and other families at the fair as well. Some families approach the fair as a chance to obtain as much information as possible about camps they may be interested in. they can sort out the literature, watch DVDs at home, and discuss camp options with their children.
MARDIE ORSHAK, former organizer of Summer Opportunities Camp Fair at the Derby School: Come with an open mind. Remember that sometimes, the children are more ready for an overnight program than the parents. Know your child’s interests – arts? sports? Is your child open to an all-around program with assorted new opportunities? Look for programs that match their level and development. Would an all girls/boys program be better than a coed one? Think about day versus residential, too.
Should I bring my kids, and how should I prepare them beforehand?
ORSHAK: Absolutely. A child’s reaction or response to a program can be an important guide to future selection and success. An open discussion about summer possibilities allows for a more positive experience as families explore the different programs attending the fair.
THERRIEN: I recommend bringing the prospective campers, especially if they are excited about camp. It's important for campers to have a hand in choosing their summer camp. Meeting the directors and asking questions themselves can be important steps in setting the stage for a successful summer. A camper who wants to attend camp makes all the difference.
I do recommend leaving younger siblings who may become restless at home. It can be tough to spend an hour or two standing around while Mom and Dad talk with strangers.
RICH: Yes, bring your kids. Before the fair, ask your children about what would make for a fun summer. One year, my son surprised me by asking about kayaking opportunities; we found a wonderful, two-week kayaking program in our town. In addition, he showed interested in a chess class and hiking program he noticed at the fair. Explain to your children that there are day camps and overnight camps and steer them in the direction of what seems feasible for each child.
What are the best questions I can ask to really get a feel for what the camp is like?
ORSHAK: Remember that camps have wonderful displays and photos that often give a good picture of what the program is about. Ask the basic question: does the program match the interests of the child? Ask about staff – their experience, their make-up (ages, etc), the ratio of staff to campers, and how many are returning. Ask about the schedule: is there an opportunity to adjust choices on a daily or weekly basis? What percentage of the campers are returning?
RICH: What is your typical day? How do you handle homesickness and/or other behavioral problems? What is your camp not? What percentage of your campers are new each year? What is the rate of staff attrition? Is your camp ACA accredited?
THERRIEN: Most parents who are looking for camps start off asking questions about their biggest fears: What is the supervision ratio? Is there a nurse on duty? How far away is the camp? What are the activities? Most camps - especially those that carry an ACA accreditation - provide capable supervision, health care, and offer a broad range of classic camp activities.
Instead, ask directors what their camp is known for. What is special about this camp? How many of the campers come back from year to year? Where do their campers come from? Did the staff grow up in the program? These questions can be great indicators of a camp's quality and can give you a sense of what makes each camp different from the others.
If I leave the fair with a few camps that we liked, what should be my next steps and my timeline?
RICH: Families are not expected to sign up for camp at the camp fair. The fair is an opportunity to collect information, talk to camp representatives, and then go home and review your summer schedule. After the fair, talk to your children about what they noticed and what they may enjoy. Many camps also list references so that you can call families that have had first-hand experience with the camps. Check out the camp DVDs and websites to learn more. Ask camp representatives what their sign-up or admissions timelines look like and plan accordingly. Some camps will be sold out before spring and some will not.
ORSHAK: Actually registering for a camp at a fair is more prevalent with day programs than overnight; generally, that happens when families know what they want, especially as some camps fill up very quickly and space is limited. As for a timeline, review the material you collected, and do your homework on the internet. Ask further questions of the director, and request references of current and past families. Talk with those families’ campers. If there is an opportunity, visit the camp (especially overnight programs). Camps should welcome prospective families with little notice. Enjoy an open family discussion about the programs and the wonderful opportunities the child can look forward, too.
THERRIEN: Families rarely sign up on the spot, though some camps use camp fairs in place of open houses or home visits, where campers from a certain area may come by and bring their friends to see a certain program and meet the director. Occasionally, families use the opportunity to put in a registration with a camp they know. Other times, when a camp with a session in high demand is nearly full, parents take the time to register on site, but usually, parents get so much information at a camp fair, they want to take a few nights to absorb it all before registering.
Now that you’re all prepared to attend a camp fair, you probably want to know where and when they are. You’re in luck: here’s our public calendar of upcoming fairs and camp open houses.