It's never too early to start researching summer day camps for your kids. Winter and early spring are the best seasons to start planning.
"By January, I'm already checking Web sites and keeping tabs on my e-mails so that I can get the boys into their first choices for camp," says a mother of two elementary school boys. "I just try to read lots about camps that are offered in our area and ask other parents about camps that would match the interests of my kids."
One child is into basketball, and the other can't get enough of Legos and Star Wars, so the mother looks for camps that best fit those hobbies.
Before deciding on a camp, network with other parents to find out whether the option is a good fit for your child and whether you're getting the most for your money.
Check out the refund policy and be clear on extra fees, suggests the American Camp Association. The ACA's resource site for families is www.CampParents.org.
They also suggest that you explore:
*What would a typical day be like?
*How competitive are the activities?
*How much supervision is there?
*What is the camper-to-counselor ratio?
*How are counselors screened and trained?
*At sports camps, ask about the level of competition and who's going to coach your kids. When there is a broad age range, such as 7 to 12, how will groups be divided?
You'll also want to know how counselors handle such problems as discipline issues. One mom says a camp at a fitness center did not work out for her son because the counselor yelled at the children. Another camp was a flop, as it did not match the description for a "cool mad-science camp."
"I didn't ask for references beforehand and learned my lesson the hard way," she recalls. "I definitely think word of mouth is the best way to find out what camps are really like. It's important to ask about how counselors are screened and to make sure that it's going to be engaging and interesting for your child."
Here's how one single mother of an 8-year-old boy is choosing two summer half-day camps for her son. The mom:
*Looks into camp credentials but also places a lot of weight on the recommendations of friends.
*Involves her son in the decision after she and her ex-husband set their budget and vacation schedules with extended families.
*Narrows down the choices for her son to pick from, keeping in mind his interests.
*Coordinates camp with another parent so the families can swap on the drop-off and pickup.
*Prefers half-day because a full-day camp is too long, especially if the kids spend a significant amount of time outside.
*Registers early to get discounts and the camps and dates she prefers.
"I don't want to schedule the whole summer," she says. "I would like for him to have some free time to just be a kid at home."
To do some of the legwork for parents deciding on camps away from home, consultant Jill Tipograph visits camps and interviews directors. She says her evaluations focus on safety, well-being, family values and personality fit between kids and programs. To get your top choice for an away camp, a year in advance isn't too early to start planning, she says.
For more information or to order her summer-camp advice guide, the Web site is www.everythingsummer.com.
A child under age 13 who goes to day camp during the summer can count as a qualified child-care expense if attendance allows the parents to work, look for work or for a spouse to attend school full time. Expenses for overnight camps do not count. Consult a tax professional for more information.