Ah, the hazy, lazy, crazy days of summer. It used to be a time when kids kicked back and forgot about school. But, today offers a brave new world— where great summer programs can be leisurely while helping your children to strengthen their academic skills and broaden their horizons.

Children’s summer programs are offered by nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, schools and universities. In fact, according to the American Camp Association, the number of day camps has nearly doubled in the past 20 years.

How do you choose which program is right for your child?

First of all, you’ll need to decide whether your child needs help academically in certain subjects, such as reading or math, or whether your child should spend the summer learning new skills, like in academic areas, the arts or athletics. You can narrow your selection of programs after making that decision.

For most kids, there needs to be a balance between academic and fun activities. Good programs use a variety of experiences to spark and expand student interests. They also feature structured and unstructured activities, and opportunities for play and rest. In addition, good programs must be age appropriate for your child.

“For elementary school kids, the program is going to have to be fun,” says Deborah Donnelly, a former principal and an afterschool education expert at the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory (SEDL). “They just want to have fun, whether the activity is social or academic. They often think about school and out-of-school programs in terms of ‘Did it make me happy today?’”

However, Donnelly reasons that “by middle school, students want to be treated like adults— they want to have a voice and a choice. And social activities and relationships are increasingly important for that age group.”

This means a good program for middle school students might include ways for the student to customize the experience, adds Donnelly. For example, the program may let a student choose between basketball and ballet, or between team-building exercises on the ropes course versus playing on a multi-age softball team.

When it is all said and done, how do you know you have selected the right program for your child? “Your child is the best barometer,” says Donnelly. “Listen to your child— what is his or her level of excitement about attending the program? Is he or she happy and engaged? An enthusiastic, happy kid is the best endorsement for any program.”

Additional Considerations for Parents:

  • Is there an adequate staff-to-child ratio to ensure all children are supervised?
  • Are staff members screened before they are hired?
  • Are staff members considerate of all children in the program, and do they treat the children with respect?
  • Are staff members qualified to tutor or teach the academic subject area of your child’s interest?
  • Are guidelines in place authorizing that only certain adults may pick up the children?
  • Are the playgrounds, sports fields and other areas where activities are held clean and safe?
  • Are healthy snacks provided?
  • Is the program adequately staffed when parents are late to pick up their children?
  • Does the staff have good relationships with parents, keeping parents informed about activities, behavioral problems and other important issues?
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