Editors' pick: Originally published June 10.
With more than 14,000 day and resident camps in the U.S., the American Camp Association (ACA) says there's a summer camp for nearly any camper and budget.
Camp costs can run from less than $100 to $1,500 per week, with 90% of ACA-accredited camps offering some form of financial assistance to more than 1 million children who come from economically deprived families or who have special medical needs or situations that might preclude them from attending camp.
Approximately 2,400 camps in the U.S. are accredited by the ACA providing over 6,500 programs that include activities such as horsemanship, archery, tennis, swimming, bracelet-making, cooking, high ropes and so much more.
With regard to cost, ACA CEO Tom Holland says many camps offer scholarship assistance. According to the 2015 ACA Business Operations Report, approximately 93% of all camps provide some form of scholarship assistance to some of their campers. Holland says with so many options for camperships and financial aid, the search is really about what the child wants out of camp.
"There are camps for every budget," explains David Christopher from online summer camp search database Summer Camps.com. "YMCA and scouting camps and camps offered by churches and religious affiliated organization tend to be more budget conscious than others, but many camps offer scholarships for families that qualify."
Of course, the cost of the camp will vary greatly depending on if it is an overnight camp or a day camp only.
"Finding a day camp conveniently located is a way to cut costs, while ensuring a fun and memorable experience for your child," Christopher added. "Also, ask if the camp offers scholarships or discounts for slower times during the summer."
Camp expenses may also be eligible for a tax credit, according to the IRS. Parents with campers under the age of 13 may qualify for a tax break if they attend a day camp with expenses counting toward the child and dependent care credit. This is good news for working parents who depend on day camps to double as child care during the summer.
The credit can be up to 35% of the parents' qualifying expenses, depending on income, and parents can use up to $3,000 of the unreimbursed expenses paid in a year for one qualifying individual or $6,000 for two or more qualifying individuals to figure the credit, according to the IRS.
How to Find the Right Camp for Your Child
Identifying the best camp situation for your child (and wallet) may come down to discovering what your camper wants to accomplish over the summer.
There are thousands of great camps throughout the country, Holland says. And the single, greatest way to find the right camp is to contact camps directly and ask questions.
Important questions to asking include: what is the camp's philosophy, what training does staff receive, does the price include the full range of activities, are parent visits encouraged and, most importantly, is it accredited?
Accreditation ensures that a camp has met up to 300 health and safety standards, Holland says. It educates the camp owners and directors in the administration of key aspects of camp operation, program quality, and the health and safety of campers and staff. It establishes guidelines for needed policies, procedures and practices for which the camp is responsible for ongoing implementation and also assists the public in selecting camps that meet industry-accepted and government-recognized standards.
"When exploring camps for your children, one the most important things to consider is your goal for your child's summer experience," Christopher says.
Are you seeking development of personal skills? Enhancement of sports capabilities? Prep for an academic area? General summer camp experience?
"Look for camps that offer the experiences that meet your needs," he says. "Also, most camps now have testimonial or review sections on their website. Make sure to read what other families experiences have been and always call the camp and speak to their representatives about any issues or concerns you may have. Their job is to ensure your whole family has a memorable experience and that starts by making sure parents feel safe and secure."
Don't forget to check your local YMCA, says Emily J. Waldren, public relations manager, marketing communications for YMCA of the USA. "YMCA camp programs offer a fun and unique experience that give children and teens the opportunity to have their best summer ever, by meeting new friends, exploring nature, discovering new interests, being physically active and creating memories that last a lifetime," she says. "To ensure that all kids have this opportunity, numerous Ys across the country have financial assistance program or scholarships to help parents in need send their child to camp. Parents and caregivers can contact their local YMCA for details."
What About Overnight or Specialty Camps?
Keep in mind overnight camps are, as expected, more expensive than day camps but can give your child the confidence that comes from being on their "own" away from their parents for a week or more, Christopher adds. "Day camps can be an effective way to meet your families needs while on a budget," he says. "We suggest parents start with a reasonable budget and realistic experiential goals."
If you are looking for a camp to accommodate campers with physical or mental challenges, the ACA reports 47% of camps offer specialized programs for individuals with disabilities. Most camps are co-ed, but 17% offer female-only programs and 10% have male only camp programs. Also, camp experts suggest checking with your child's after school activity program or organization for summer programs such as dance, art, theater or karate camps for younger students.
What about kids who feel as though they are too old for camp but not ready for a job? Many ACA-accredited camps offer sessions to kids all the way into high school. Additionally, 68% of accredited camps have a counselor in training (CIT) program that develops leadership skills for students too old for camp, but too young to be a counselor, and who someday hope to become a camp summer staff member.