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PARENTING : Is It Time to Camp It Up? : There are plenty of choices, but the decision to go should be left up to the child, a school counseling director says.

March 26, 1993|MARYANN HAMMERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Maryann Hammers is a regular contributor to Valley Life

Summer camp used to be fairly predictable: Hikes in the woods. S'mores over a campfire. Ghost stories in a tent.

But camp today can mean anything from Disneyland excursions to dance lessons. The choices are endless, with something for every interest, ability, age and need. Children can spend the summer at day or resident camps, all-girl, all-boy or co-ed camps, academic or art camps, sports or science camps, religious or ranch camps, or camps for the physically or developmentally disabled.

This mind-numbing variety presents parents with a dilemma. Which camp is best for their child?

The pressure is on to make a selection soon, says Shirley Walch, executive director of the Southern California section of the American Camping Assn. "Your options will be limited if you wait till May, and you may not be able to enroll the child in the camp you want," she says.

Even before that choice is made, of course, parents must decide whether to send their kids to camp at all. It's not for every child, says Charles Espalin, counseling director for the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The decision, he says, "depends on the maturity and sophistication of the youngster. The younger the child, the more of a chance there is that camp will be a negative experience. Introduce the idea, describe the camp, visit it and ask the youngster if he would like to go. But don't force it. Camp should be optional."

Children who occasionally sleep over at a friend's house or with grandparents usually adjust easily to camp, according to Steve Schachter, executive director of Sierra Canyon, a day camp in Chatsworth. He adds that children who go to camp should be willing and able to take responsibility for personal hygiene, such as showering, dressing and brushing teeth.

While most camps offer a combination of sports, games, nature activities, academic programs, and arts and crafts, there are also specialty camps that concentrate on a single theme--anything from llama trekking to losing weight. "Specialty camps come and go as certain things become popular or fade away," says Walch, who recently helped a parent track down a surfing and skateboarding camp in Hawaii. "Computer camps are becoming passe, but sports camps, especially tennis camps, are hot."

To choose among the options, parents should look to the child's interests and abilities as their guide. "Let the child help select a camp," Schachter says. "A child who is included in the decision-making process will be more enthusiastic about going."

Tuition varies enormously from camp to camp, from less than $100 a week for YMCA or city park day camps to thousands of dollars for private resident camps.

"Parents may assume the more money they pay, the better camp it is," he says. "But we should look at it differently: Will the youngster feel comfortable? Will the youngster be with his or her peer group? It might have a negative effect if the young person feels very much out of his or her league."

Before settling on a camp, Espalin suggests that parents visit the place and talk to other parents whose children have gone through the program. "You learn a lot by walking around and talking, rather than just looking at the literature," he says. "Know the schedule. Find out how they encourage young people to become confident--especially city kids who have not had the opportunity to engage in physical activities."

Encino parent Pam Gardner has been through the gamut of programs as her son, Leigh, 11, has tried out day camps, baseball camps and sleep-away camps, and her son, Jack, 5, has begun to follow in his footsteps.

The key to a positive experience, Gardner believes, is the quality of the counselors. "It's not the facilities, the setup or what they have," she says. "If they have good counselors who really play with them, the camp is going to be good."

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