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Camping It Up

With the multitude of options, choosing the right retreat for your child takes homework.

April 19, 1999

Ahh, summertime, and the living is easy. You picture the simple life, at least for your kids: nature walks and horseback rides, corny songs by campfires, canoe races and butterfly chases. In short, camp.

But accessing that life of perfected leisure requires a virtual arsenal of Web sites, camp directories and investigative work.

So much for simple. With more than 10,000 camps across the country to choose from, many parents find the selection process overwhelming. Choosing the right camp for your child can truly become one of those tasks that can expand to fill as much time as you have. But don't let it. Here's the time-pressed parents' guide to tackling the challenge.

* Do you want a local day camp, which is best for younger kids, or a resident (sleep-away) camp, for campers 6 and up?

* How long do you want your child involved? (Sessions range from one week to eight.)

* How much do you want to spend? (Costs range from $10 to $50 a day for day camps, and from $15 to $130 a day for resident camps.)

* Do you want a traditional camp that offers a variety of activities, or a specialty camp, where the focus is on one activity, say tennis, theater arts or soccer?

* Or would your child benefit from a camp for kids with special needs?

* And, hey, how would you like to go? Parents who want to recapture a little lost youth or just spend more quality time with the kids can choose from the increasing number of family camps now available.

Once you've determined your basic criteria, get online or contact national organizations prepared to help you slog through the options. (See separate story for online resources.)

"The Internet is a great way to research camps, and you can do it with your kids," says Peg Smith, executive director of the American Camping Assn., which provides both a written directory and an interactive Web site to aid your search.

Established in 1910, the ACA is an association of camp professionals and is the only organization that accredits camps. However, the ACA recommends only camps that it has accredited--less than one out of four camps. (Nonaccredited camps aren't necessarily bad, they just haven't applied for accreditation. Of the camps that do subject themselves to the ACA accreditation process, 95% pass.)

Once on the ACA Web site, enter your criteria for cost, location and type of camp. You'll quickly locate several camps that fit your needs. The guide also can point you to Web sites and phone numbers for specific camps.

Another venerable institution, the National Camping Assn., is a camp advisory service that provides free referrals to sleep-away camps. All NCA camps are state licensed. NCA's Web site invites you to fill out a brief questionnaire, then e-mail it to the association's office. An NCA counselor will call and help match you to the right camp for your child, criteria and budget. Or you can call the ACA or NCA toll-free.

If you want your camper to stay in Southern California, you're in luck. The region offers many choices, says Shirley Walch, executive director of the ACA for Southern California.

The regional ACA guide lists more than 200 accredited camps; some 800 more aren't listed. Choice runs from the Spartan to the sublime.

Hollenbeck Park Day Camp in Boyle Heights, for example, offers a traditional low-cost, basic camp experience for $20 to $25 a week. On the other extreme, the venerable, family-owned Gold Arrow Camp hosts a resident camp on Huntington Lake--known for its elite water sports--for those who can afford the $950 weekly rate.

After cost, another important consideration is the choice between traditional or specialty camp, which focuses on specific activities such as tennis or fine arts. Jeff Solomon, executive director for the NCA, advises saving specialty camp for the older child.

"In our specialized society, parents are too eager to get their child really good at something, but there's a short side to that, and that's exclusion of experience," Solomon says.

If the kids are intent on one hobby or sport, specialty camp might be too much of a good thing.

"That 13-year-old may love baseball, but is he really going to want to play it eight hours a day for three weeks?" asks Solomon, who recommends children have a traditional camp experience first. "The point of camp is to expose kids to opportunities they wouldn't otherwise encounter and to help them develop new skills."

However, did Cameron Petersen, 11, who surfed five days straight at Super Surf Camp in San Clemente, burn out?

"No way," he said. He'll do it again this summer.

One type of specialty camp that does offer a positive option for even young children is camp for kids with special needs. The list includes camps for the deaf, blind, diabetic, HIV-positive, emotionally disturbed, overweight and, more recently, for the child with Attention Deficit Disorder.

The bottom line is there's probably a camp for every kid, but finding the right one takes some digging.

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