Want your kids in summer camp? Plan now

The Rolling River Day Camp in East Rockaway

The Rolling River Day Camp in East Rockaway will hold an open house from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday from Feb. 5 to June 11. (Credit: Handout)

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Snow on the ground, freezing temperatures, gray skies. The perfect time to plan for . . . summer camp?

That's right - if your child will be heading to a day or sleepaway camp for the first time this summer, you should be taking action now.

Day and sleepaway camps will be having open houses and participating in group camp information fairs during the coming weeks. Here's step-by-step strategic advice on how to proceed:

STEP ONE

Decide on parameters

Do you want your child to attend camp for one week? A month? Seven weeks? Some camps allow registration for a certain number of weeks; others require committing to the entire program. If you are considering sleepaway, how far away do you want your child to be? Here on Long Island? Pennsylvania? Vermont?

Some camps concentrate on athletics; others focus on the arts; others cater to children with special needs. Niche camps offer immersion into robotics, chess, tennis, magic, fishing and more. Do you want siblings to be at the same camp? Or do you want to address each child's personality separately?

How much do you want to spend? Camps range from about $300 a week to more than $1,000 a week, says Adam Weinstein, executive director of the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey, a nonprofit group that accredits 2,400 summer camps.

Starting early gives you a better chance at your first choice; sometimes age groups fill up fast. "We have definitely turned people away," says Paula Rothman, director of North Shore Day Camp in Glen Cove, with 600 campers ages 3 to 14.

STEP TWO

Narrow choices to five or six

Camp fairs usually offer information on 30 to 50 day camps and shorter-term sleepaway programs, Weinstein says. A number of businesses and agencies help match families to camps for free. The American Camp Association has a website at campwizard.org; staff members guide parents by phone. Camp Specialists is a Jericho-based matchmaker service (campspecialists .com); the camps pay the company for matches. Modern technology also has offered parents a window into camps through their websites. Many have prepared complimentary videos. Request these and watch them.

STEP THREE

Bring your child into the process

Watch camp videos together. Attend open houses. Camps usually offer activities for the kids and tours by supervisors and staff. Sleepaway camps also offer open houses and tours. The best option is to see camp while it's in session, which is a possibility if camp isn't on your family's agenda until summer 2012. Consider a trial: Some camps offer weekend or weeklong sessions meant for prospective campers. Camp Weequahic (rhymes with mosaic) in Wayne County, Pa., offers "rookie camp" the last week in July for potential campers in grades 1 to 5; it lasts six days and five nights, says director Cole Kelly.

STEP FOUR

Grill the camp director

The camp director sets the tone, values and philosophy of the camp and is the person whom parents communicate with throughout the summer, Weinstein says.

Camp Weequahic's Kelly visits each prospective camper's house to sit at the kitchen table or on the couch with parents; one recent weekend, he was scheduled to see 12 families in Washington, D.C., and New York. "Parents need to look me in the eye and feel comfortable with me," he said. Other camp directors do the same.

The American Camp Association suggests parents ask how staff are interviewed, hired and trained, the ratio of campers to counselors, and whether the camp is accredited. Ask about medical personnel on site and health-care procedures. For sleepaway camp, also ask about pick up, visiting days, color wars and camp policy on electronics such as cell phones. Ask about how you would communicate with your child.

STEP FIVE

Check references

Ask the camp if you can speak with families who have been going there for years, but keep in mind the camp is going to provide references of people who are loyal, Kelly says. In the end, he says, "You've got to go with your gut feeling."

FIND UPCOMING OPEN HOUSES:

Summer camps in Nassau | Summer camps in Suffolk

UPCOMING SUMMER CAMP FAIRS:

Long Island Parent Camp Fun Fest

-Feb. 13, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Broadway Mall, Hicksville
-Feb. 27, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Suffolk County Community College, Riverhead, 631-673-4082

Suffolk Parent Camp Fair

-March 12, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Smith Haven Mall, Lake Grove, 631-472-5437; suffolkcampfair.com

About 30 camps and summer activities participate, says Susan Fine, director of marketing for New York Metro Parents.

New York Family and American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey Camp Fair

-Saturday, 12 to 3 p.m., Friends Seminary School, 222 E. 16th St.
-Feb. 5, 12 to 3 p.m., Columbia Heights, Bank Street School, 610 W. 112 St.
-March 5, 12 to 3 p.m., St. Jean Baptise, 173 E. 75th St. between Lexington and Third Avenue
-March 6, 12 to 3 p.m., Congregation Rodeph Sholom, 7 W. 83rd St.
-March 12, 12 to 3 p.m., Friends Seminary School, 222 E. 16th St.; 212-391-5208; aca-ny.org 

Resources for Children with Special Needs Camp Fair

-Saturday, Jan. 29, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Church of the St. Paul Apostle, Columbus Avenue and West 60th Street, 212-677-4650, ext. 20; gshulman@resourcesnyc.org

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