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Article Published February 3, 2017
Picking the Right Summer Camp
From local day camps to sleepaway, how to choose what’s best for your child
Jen Matteis, Editorial Assistant

With the wide variety of camps on or near the shoreline, choosing one isn't easy. But all those choices also mean that you can probably find a camp that is perfect for your child. There are many factors to take into account.

"For me, safety is most important, especially when you're sending children into water," says Jessica Guelke, director of the Red Barn Children's Center, a nature-based day camp in Clinton. She recommends looking for mature staffers who are certified in Red Cross first aid.

Also, Guelke says, think about what your children enjoy—and what they don't enjoy.

"If your child doesn't like to get hot, they might do better with a dance camp or an art camp," she says. "If your child is really busy and likes to play outside and get their hands engrossed into mud-pie making, then perhaps an outdoors-based camp is more for them."

Remember the importance of location. "It is gorgeous up here," says Guelke, "and we are well worth the drive, but I understand it is a sacrifice for a lot of people to get their kids up here."

Finally, when choosing a camp, make sure you visit beforehand. Most camps offer tours or open houses to help parents decide if they are right for their child.

But traditional day camps are different from sleepaway camps, and both will differ greatly from camps that specialize in areas like music and sports. Here are some things to consider in each category.

Day Camps

A day camp can offer traditional activities such as swimming, ball sports, and archery as well as more unusual pastimes, such as cooking, fort building, and rocketry.

"It really is one of the last remaining places where children have the opportunity to try new experiences, learn and develop skills, make friends, and enjoy an outdoor setting, all while spending time with caring adult role models," says Patrick Connelly of Valley Shore YMCA, in Westbrook.

"We pride ourselves on offering a variety of activities that keep campers engaged, busy, and active throughout the day," says Katelyn Tortora of Soundview Family YMCA, in Branford. "Each activity period is 35 minutes long, giving campers plenty of time to enjoy multiple activities every day."

At Magic Science Camp, held at the Academy of Mount Saint John, in Deep River, kids participate in a wide range of activities. The camp's director, Bob Roberti, says, "Activities include sports and adventure, engineering and rocketry, music, arts and crafts, horticulture, culinary, science and robotics, computer graphics, and swimming lessons.

"Factors that set the program apart from other camps in the area are that we have certified teachers as staff members," he adds. "We also have junior counselors assisting the staff so that the number of children to staff does not exceed a five-to-one ratio."

Hamden Hall Country Day School's annual free week-long science and engineering academy, which will be held from July 10 to 14 this year, allows middle-school children to perform experiments and do lab work in such fields as DNA technology, computer-game design, microbiology, and chemistry. For more information or to download an application form, visit

For kids interested in history and related subjects, the Connecticut River Museum's Summer Adventure Camps may be ideal. Held at the historic Bushnell Farm, in Old Saybrook, and at the museum, in Essex, the camps offer different themes based around Colonial life, archaeology, the Connecticut River, and more.

"The camps are very active, hands-on experiences," says Jennifer White-Dobbs, the museum's director of education and marketing, "with opportunities to learn how to burn a canoe, cook on an open hearth, sail a ship, conduct an excavation, and spend lots of time on the river catching critters and building aquariums back at the museum. Parents choose camps based on their kid's personal interests and often choose a different camp each year, although we have a number of kids who love one camp in particular and return each summer for that one."

Children with a particular interest in pets or wildlife should enjoy Animal Camp, a six-week camp hosted by the Dan Cosgrove Animal Shelter, in Branford.

"The theme of the camp is to respect all living creatures, including each other," says Laura Selvaggio Burban, director of the animal shelter. "The children will interact with all types of animals, such as baby alligators, hedgehogs, pigs, ducks, squids, dogs, cats, and even wolves, and so many others."

Activity-Based Camps

A camp can also provide a chance to develop specific skills, such as proficiency in music or sports. Kids can explore tennis and swimming at local clubs like the Madison Racquet & Swim Club and the Guilford Racquet & Swim Club; activities like theater, show choir, and film and animation through local organizations like the Madison Arts Barn; and guitar, drums, and vocals at the School of Rock Madison.

At the Guilford Art Center (GAC), kids can learn sewing, mixed-media art, sculpture, pottery, blacksmithing, and more in air-conditioned studios.

"I would say parents would choose our program who are interested in their kids exploring their creative side, and also as a balance to a lot of the summer sports programs that are so popular," says Maureen Belden, GAC's executive director.

Offered through the Community Music School (CMS), in Centerbrook, Kate's Camp for Kids culminates in a 30-minute musical performance.

"Our camp is a complete immersion in the arts, with portions of the day dedicated to singing, dancing, acting, and visual arts," says Abigail Nickell, CMS's executive director.

A learning-based camp can provide an introduction to a new activity as well as an opportunity to expand an existing skill.

"We have campers with a particular interest in music, dance, theater, or art, but not necessarily all of them," says Nickell. "We don't require any previous experience and welcome complete beginners. This is a good introduction to the arts for young children whose parents might want them to try it out before investing in something longer term during the school year."

Sleepaway Camps

Sleepaway camp presents a unique opportunity for a child to develop independence. At Camp Hazen YMCA, in Chester, kids spend their time in one of four areas: water sports, land sports, creative arts, and adventure. The 150-acre camp, on Cedar Lake, offers canoeing, a water trampoline, basketball, a skate park, a ropes course, archery, a climbing wall, fishing, outdoor cooking, and more.

"They get to choose and select the activities they would most like to do while they're here," says Laurie Bouchard, office manager at Camp Hazen. "We have a radio station here that they can get involved in. There's sand art and camp jewelry and tie-dye and all sorts of creative arts."

Incarnation Camp, located on more than 700 acres with a mile-long lake in Ivoryton, is the longest-running coed camp in the nation.

"Anything you think of going on in a summer camp we're usually doing," says Nia Orellana, the camp's program coordinator. "Our overnight camp is the traditional American overnight experience. We sleep in tents with four bunk beds in them—that's one really big selling point. Our shortest sessions that we offer are two weeks, which is very highly recommended if it's your first overnight camp."

The camp is ideal for the water-loving child, with a water slide and a water trampoline in addition to activities like swimming and boating.


'I Want to Go Home!'

What to do if your child wants to come home from sleepaway camp

A sleepaway camp is often a child's first experience spending the night away from family—and it might be the first time your child gets homesick. Fortunately, camp counselors are trained and ready to deal with homesickness.

"[The kids] are going to feel some homesickness," says Laurie Bouchard of Camp Hazen, "and that's natural, and we let them know that. The idea is to get them over that hump. Once they get over that, they have this huge feeling of independence."

"We do have a lot of homesickness," says Nia Orellana of Incarnation Camp. "If you can get through the first week, you'll be good." The camp is completely technology free, so kids are encouraged to write letters to their parents.

"We'd really try to work with them for a couple days," Orellana says, "especially if their parents sent them here because they want them to get that camp experience and they want them to develop independence."

Camp counselors typically try to engage the kids in the activities they like best to keep them focused on the present.

"If you have someone who says, 'I'm really missing home,' you say, 'What have you done so far that you've liked? Let's go do it,' " says Orellana. "We try different strategies. We also like to keep the parents informed of what's going on. I've never had a kid sent home because they're having a horrible time."

"Very rarely will a child leave camp," Bouchard says. "We usually work through it."

At both of these camps, counselors will consult with the parents if a child wants to go home. But they agree that it's better for the kid to stick to it.

"You're going to have a couple kids that struggle for a week," says Orellana, "but then they get through it, and I'd say they're better for it as well."