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How to Find the Right Summer Camp Before It's Too Late

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- It's late February, and a few feet of snow covers the ground in large portions of the U.S.

That's not exactly the mindset needed to start planning for summer camp for your kids, but it should be. A little planning now can go a long way later in choosing the best and most value-laden summer camp experiences for the wee ones.

Why? Primarily, because you'll have lots of competition, and time is shorter than you think.

According to the American Camp Association, the U.S. camping industry had revenues of $15 billion in 2012, and about 11 million kids visit camps on an annual basis.

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Even the Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, are seasoned summer campers, sending a message to parents that the first couple sees great value in providing a regular camp experience for their daughters.

Life Time, a Chanhassen, Minn., heath and fitness services company, has five tips to help parents select the best summer camp deal for their children and for their bank accounts:

Safety first. Conduct a good, thorough background check on any summer camp and make sure it offers a staff fully trained in first aid and CPR. "Because the commitment to quality and safety can vary dramatically from camp to camp, it's really important for parents to do their homework to make sure they're getting the best fit for their child and themselves," says Adam Orlow, a personal injury attorney with the Orlow Firm, a New York City law firm. That means asking for references, making sure the camp has insurance and actually visiting the camp to see for yourself whether it meets your standards.

What's an average day like? Life Time advocates asking about the daily routine at a summer camp. You want kids outside and active, with plenty of activities to choose from. If you sense a camp doesn't meet that criteria, keep on looking.

Ask about the help. Camp counselors are the de facto parents in the absence of mom and cad, so you'll want to know the experience level and vetting process for hiring those counselors. Also, ask about the counselor-to-child ratio -- it should at least be one to 10 on the camp premises, and one to seven for offsite trips.

What about food? Kids are fueled by food, and you want a summer camp that offers a great diet for active children. Life Time advises checking into the daily menu and whether it's free of unhealthy food options that have artificial colors, preservatives and sweeteners. A good summer camp will check with parents about medical and diet information and whether there are any allergy issues.

Where's the dollar value? You want a summer camp experience that gives your family the most bang for your buck, so choosing a camp with a wide variety of activities is a great way to stretch your summer camp dollar. Finding a camp that offers activities such as swimming, rock climbing, softball, arts and crafts and creative games "keep costs lower, keep kids more engaged, and help identify areas kids may want to explore further as they grow and develop," says Life Time.

Don't wait too long to sign your kids up for summer camp -- the best ones fill up early. Line up your camp by the end of March to ensure you get the one you and your child really want.

Also, engage your child in the selection and build a savings budget over the course of the year to help pay for it. Your child will appreciate it, and your family budget will be better for it, too.

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