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By Alice Shechter

Camp is the cure for the summertime blues.

Sleepaway camp may be the answer to the summertime blues for you and your child.

We all know that summer can start with exciting days of travel, trips, park and playground visits, special events, and extra time with the family. But even when child care is not a major issue, several weeks into summer parents begin checking the calendar to see when school starts again.

And if child care is an issue? Summer can be a nightmare of arrangements, expenses, supervision problems, and usually reliable caregivers requesting vacation time. It is frustrating to find people who will keep your child not only safe but challenge and engage her; keep him not only away from video screens but fend off boredom as well.

Camp may be your answer. For younger children there are day camps right in your neighborhood, and their preseason advertising will likely find you even before you start looking. And you probably know dozens of people who can point you toward quality, affordable programs.

By age 8 or 9, children may outgrow day camp, and are looking for something more exciting and adventurous. Think sleepaway camp. There are thousands of sleepaway camps around the country, and it is one of the oldest, most professional and best regulated of child care institutions. Where to start? Consider these four factors:

Are you ready to do the research, interview staff, fill out forms, iron on name tags, and then let go? Sending your child to live away is not easy, especially in this era of constant contact via text, phone, etc. We expect to have access to children in ways previously unimagined.

But summer camp is designed to achieve the opposite of constant contact. It is a chance for your child to gain independence, problem-solve, define herself, negotiate social standing, all under the watchful eyes of caring staff.

You won't and can't be there to intervene, direct, or even just smooth things over. Campers go off with a certain amount of separation anxiety; but it can be even worse for parents. Again, ask yourself if you are ready.

Your child
Does she love sports, or is he an artist, differently-abled, and shy? What about horses, computers, farming, or theater? Finding the right camp means knowing what your child, and you, both want.

If she is not athletic but you wish she was, immersion soccer camp might build her skills but make her miserable. Many parents want children to be permanently productive by collecting accomplishments for college applications. But that can be stressful for kids. Many camps are indeed designed to "improve" children; performing arts camps, tech, golf and diet camps.

But summer is also for relaxation. Some camps create warm, accepting communities for children, encouraging self-reliance through negotiating relationships and sharing daily responsibilities. Some promote religious or social values, which can enrich your child in ways SAT tests don't measure. Carefully consider this, because camp is 24/7 and your camper lives and breathes the environment for a very concentrated period of time.

The camp
How do you find the right camp? First, there is the American Camp Association, a national umbrella organization and go-to camping resource. Their accreditation program is rigorous, and ACA-accredited camps are safe and operate according to regulations. Not all camps seek accreditation, though, so request evidence that the camp is inspected by local and state authorities, meeting requirements for health, safety, security, onsite medical care, licensed lifeguards, and background checks for all staff.

Along with ACA, investigate local YMCAs, YWCAS, scouting groups, settlement houses, and community or religious organizations. And, to locate a great camp, check with other parentss. You'll get the lowdown on positives and negatives about a camp, and your child will trust that a friend is already happy at the camp.

Camp is expensive. Many camps succumbed to skyrocketing costs for payroll, taxes, or insurance. Some remaining camps have tuition approaching colleg-like levels. Luckily many groups subsidize camps that support their missions, offering scholarships.

Some religious groups sponsor attendance, knowing camp offers powerful values reinforcement. Ask! Camps may fill empty beds rather than having spotty enrollment. Do you have a specific skill, and vacation time? Licensed lifeguards and nurses, also artists, athletes and other specialists, can exchange work for tuition. Be creative; again, don't hesitate to ask.

Summer camp can be life-changing for children and families. Once chosen, it's a path to a world of fun, friendship, growth and community, with ample assistance to help you along the way. Happy camping!

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