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10 things to consider when choosing a local camp

by meira maierovitz drazin

summer camp options include everything from specialty camps that focus on theater, sports or academics to general all-inclusive programs. in general, day camp is a wonderful experience for children of most any age, as it allows them to grow by making new friends while learning new skills from positive role models. and for those who may be making last-minute plans, day camps generally have more openings than overnight camps as we get closer to summer.

but how to choose one that's right for your child? according to the directors of four very different kinds of new york city area day camps, the following are the top 10 topics parents should be thinking about.

make sure your child is ready: many camps have a "camp readiness screening," in which camps and parents look together at factors like the age of the child, his maturity and familiarity with separation. gail ionescu, director of the "mommy and me style" poppyseeds toddler summer program, suggests that if your child is too young, or you don't want her first separation experience to be at camp but you still want to give her the social experience as well as consistency of a group of peers, you might consider a program where the toddler or young child comes with a caregiver.

know your child: david knapp, director of asphalt green, suggests talking to your child about her hobbies and interests. "camping has developed over the years. it used to be a general experience, but now there's all kinds of specializations: computer camp, horseback riding, soccer, gymnastics. you need to think about what you're looking for in terms of your child's interests and needs," he says. alan saltz, director of the 52-year-old 92nd street y camp program, agrees: "try to match your child's interests, abilities and personality with the right setting. while your decision will ultimately be based on your own sense of what your son or daughter will enjoy and be challenged by, input should also come from your child."

make a checklist: "figure out what important elements you are looking for-weeks, hours, pick-ups, lunch, busing, flexibility, what you'd like your kid to be doing during the day-and make a checklist of the items you expect," says knapp.

ask about staffing: "make sure the camp understands that older children need less supervision and younger children need more. a ratio of 1:10 for 11 or 12 year olds is appropriate but 1:6 is better for younger children," says knapp. if your child has special needs such as adhd, a smaller ratio might be more appropriate.

ionescu emphasizes that for toddler programs, it is important to inquire if the teachers have a background in and underlying understanding of early childhood development. petunia chmiel, director of st. bartholomew's summer at st. bart's, which uses new york city school system teachers as head counselors, college students as assistants and high school seniors as counselors-in-training, recommends asking specifically about the head counselors and "if they are real teachers." knapp, based on asphalt green's experience with a range of staff from high school seniors to retirees, recommends camps that strike a balance in the age of their staff: "i'm skeptical of camps run by all adults," he says. "young people add energy."

talk to friends: talk to other parents, teachers and childcare professionals. "the fact is, great camps get buzz, so open your ears and poke around on the web," says saltz.

check it out: "visit the camp if you can, preferably with your child," says saltz. chmiel agrees: "bringing the child gives them something to look forward to," she says. for city kids, "going to camp in the country can provide a great change of pace," adds saltz, "but make sure the setting appeals to both of you."

consider vacation time: today there are some camps like st. bart's which offer weekly sessions that don't have to be consecutive, thereby accommodating your family vacation without forcing you to pay for unused days. chmiel recommends planning any summer vacation you might want to take well in advance.

stay informed: "you should expect to get information formally and informally through some combination of newsletters, counselors or the camp director, and phone calls," says saltz. "choose a camp with open communication and established channels for conveying information about your child on a regular basis."

know the policies: what is the camp's policy on refunds? medical care? does the camp have a state permit or new york city license, which guarantees minimum safety standards?

take a chance: "if you're thinking about a specialty camp-for sports, art, nature, etc.-remember that your child doesn't have to be an expert in the area," says saltz. "general interest in the subject or activity is much more important than technical ability or innate talent."

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