It might be difficult to say who was more excited about camp at the Great Lakes Science Center last summer: 8-year-old Evelyn Foutty or her dad, Christopher, a software developer.
"The kids got to do a live uplink with the astronauts in the [International] Space Station," says Evelyn's mom, Cara Foutty, an attorney. "It was so cool. My husband's whole office watched it."
The Foutty family discovered the science center camps about three years ago when Evelyn wanted to be an astronaut. So Cara enrolled her in one of the center's outreach locations near their Westlake home. Over the next few years, Evelyn and her younger sister, 4-year-old Elisabeth, have participated in multiple summer — and even winter break — camps at the science center in downtown Cleveland.
Their experiences have included Star Wars, Legos, engineering, movie effects and mystery camps. Elisabeth, who isn't as science focused as her sister, even attended pirate camp. When Cara asked her youngest daughter what she had done on the first day of camp, Elisabeth responded: "I pillaged and plundered."
"There's definitely something for everyone there," Cara laughs.
But with so many camp choices — from classic outdoor overnight experiences to sports camps to focused specialty camps — finding the right camp and getting the most out of it can be difficult. So we asked educators, parents and physicians for ways to make this summer's camp experience the best ever for your child.
What kind of camp is your child ready for?
There's a big difference between dropping a 5-year-old off for a two-hour nature camp and sending a 10-year-old away for a few weeks to an out-of-state overnight camp.
So how do you know if your child is ready for a sleepaway camp?
David Cole, owner and director of Camp Robin Hood in Freedom, New Hampshire, suggests asking a few simple questions.
"Are they doing sleepovers? Are they comfortable sleeping out?" he says. "If a child's doing a sleepover, even if it's just one night, are they happy to go?"
If your daughter calls at 10 p.m. whenever she sleeps at a friend's house, then she might not be ready to go away. In these cases, Dr. Carrie Bohenick, a pediatrician at Akron Children's Hospital Pediatric's in Brecksville, recommends trying a day camp or even a family camp where you can go along too.
Be sure you're ready too.
Whether sending your child to overnight camp or dropping him off alone for the first time, you also need to be prepared for the separation.
"If the parent is really worried about the kids going to camp, it's important not showing it," Bohenick says.
Help make the transition easier — for both of you — with words of encouragement. "Tell them all the fun things that they're going to get to do," she says. "They might get to meet new friends, what new activities they might get to try or what activities they're going to get to experience when they're there."
Ease into the full sleepaway experience with Cleveland Metroparks new Night Camp at Brecksville Reservation. Specifically designed for parents and their 8- to 12-year-old children, the summer program runs from 6 to 10 p.m. for three nights and includes typical camping experiences such as cooking over a fire and night hikes looking for owls.
"Parents can come after work with their child," says Metroparks naturalist Pam Taylor. "During the summer we have the opportunity to do different things with our kids."
You'd like to hide in your child's suitcase to protect him from bee stings or not being picked in dodgeball, but you can't. So you need to be comfortable with your choice.
The American Camp Association, which offers training, resources and accreditation, may be a place to start. Accredited camps undergo a rigorous review of their operations and must meet up to 300 standards including staff qualifications and training to emergency management.
Then talk with other parents, teachers and counselors to gather recommendations and feedback on camps offered by area private schools, colleges and universities, museums, recreation departments, religious groups, the YMCA and park systems.
When brochures come out in February, consider options with your child.
"I let my kids read through our summer camp catalog," says Kirsten Ellenbogen, president and CEO of Great Lakes Science Center, who has two children ages 9 and 11. "They're very quick to tell me which ones excite them and which ones are not interesting to them."
Then discuss how camp hours, transportation and even cost fit with other family commitments such as jobs, summer activities and vacation plans.
"If you give your child a chance to choose and have some ownership over it," says Mark Nestor, director of auxiliary programs at Hawken School, "they can have a life-changing summer experience."
The opposite is also true, however. Imposing your idea of summer fun on your child — from those I'd-love-a-place-like-this comments to choosing sports camp when your daughter desperately wants space camp — can make for a miserable experience.
Explore your child's interests.
"The summer should be a way for the student to dig deeper into something that they feel passionate about," says Jason Habig, a history teacher and summer camp director at Hathaway Brown School. "Summer gives you that opportunity."
Indeed, the variety of areas kids can explore is vast whether your child enjoys science, sports, art, nature or other topics.
Interested in roller coaster engineering? The science center has a camp for that, complete with a trip to Cedar Point and discussions with real engineers.
Hawken offers a fashion school camp for middle school kids, followed by an optional three-day trip to New York City to meet with designers and executives from fashion agencies.
"If the child initiates it, they're more likely for success," says Callista Koh, Suzuki program director at the Music Settlement in University Circle, which offers camps for kids across ages, abilities and experiences.
Trying something new could ignite a passion.
Jim Nemet, education manager at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, points to a sixth-grade field trip as a spark for his career.
"I got to feed the sea lion," he recalls.
From that moment, Nemet says, he knew he wanted to work with animals. At the zoo's summer day camps, kids can spend from one to 10 weeks (with full and half-day options) learning about animals, habitats and conservation.
"[For] any one of us who works here, there will be one pivotal moment that created us to be conservationist advocators or animal trainers," says Nemet.
While those transformational experiences can be difficult to predict, many camps are improving the chances by providing meaningful connections for students.
This summer, Hathaway Brown will tie into the energy of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland with an election-focused camp for middle school children and a class for high school students.
Occurring in July during the convention, the middle school camp will be experientially based with politician visits and a trip to an election field office to understand the operation, says Hathaway Brown's Habig.
The blended-learning high school class will cover topics such as campaign finance, the electoral college and how the convention works.
"We're always looking at what's going on in Cleveland and what kids are interested in to inform how we create the camps," says Habig.
Hawken's Nestor drew inspiration from his teenage son to create the school's new Under the Hood camp, where 15- to 18-year-olds can learn automotive basics such as how to change the oil and replace the tires.
"As a parent of a 16-year-old, when he's out on the road, I want him to have those skills," Nestor says.
And for those who want to explore their limits, Laurel School in Shaker Heights has added the Extreme Adventure camp for seventh- and eighth-graders. The two-week coed camp culminates in West Virginia with rock climbing, white-water rafting and zip lining.
"Our goal is to help participants develop skills, leadership and confidence through several exciting adventures," says Karen Edwards, director of Summer at Laurel.
Make a game plan before camp.
Tess Flannery, an administrator at Camp Christopher in Bath, recommends taking a child to a open house, if possible, to become familiar with the surroundings and activities.
It's also important to talk about a child's anxieties and come up with strategies in case something happens.
"You want them to try new things, but it's OK for them to not like something," says Akron Children's Bohenick. "Try to troubleshoot what might happen if they don't like something. What are they going to do? What if they don't get the bunk that they want? Or they think they're going with a friend, but they get assigned to different groups? Going over what might happen and what you can do in that situation is helpful."
Help your child navigate the social dynamics.
Many experts suggest sending your child to camp with a friend to ease the transition. When that isn't possible, have a conversation about making friends. Remind your child of a time when he did well making friends in a new situation such as at a birthday party or on a sports team.
"You don't have to be best friends with everyone at camp," Bohenick says. "It's OK to make one or two new friends."
In addition, single-gender camps can be a place where some kids thrive socially.
Cara Foutty often enrolls Evelyn in girls-only camps at the Great Lakes Science Center.
"It's nice to focus on the girls and the way they learn and their interests without the distraction or behavior of boys taking over things," she says.
Last year, Evelyn's all-girls engineering camp took a field trip to Rockwell Automation. Female engineers spent the day giving students a challenge that they needed to problem-solve within a certain budget.
"She thought it was the coolest thing ever," says Foutty.
Likewise, Beaumont School's BeauArtz camp helps girls develop decision-making and problem-solving skills by focusing on drawing, cooking, fashion design and clay sculpting.
"Girls who attend our camps are able to create something they imagined, putting abstract ideas into reality," says Anna Beyerle, public relations and marketing manager at Beaumont. "Campers take risks with their creations in a safe environment, and we give them the creative freedom they may not have during the school year."
Think of camp as an investment in the future.
No one is suggesting that if you sign up your son for theater camp, he's destined for Broadway or if your daughter attends basketball camp, she'll end up in the WNBA. But a good camp should offer kids the skills they need to be successful in the coming months and years.
"Every single thing we do should really be promoting their 21st-century learning skills," says Camp Christopher's Flannery. Summer experiences should help develop creative thinking, collaboration, communication, flexibility, social skills, initiative and leadership.
"It's an opportunity for these camps to teach these really important skills without bringing a textbook into it," she says. "It's all active learning."
While camps can help prevent the summer slide — the loss of academic abilities over the break — the development of those softer skills can be equally important.
"They will get the experience to build relationships with people they don't know," she says. "They'll have opportunities to practice controlling their impulses, taking turns, listening and having empathy for others."
what I've learned
Michael Horejsei, 23
A graduate of St. Ignatius High School, the Brunswick resident is a senior at the Ohio State University, where he majors in construction management and pitches for the Buckeyes baseball team.
I was probably 7 or 8 when I started attending [St. Ignatius Baseball Camp].
Every time I come home for Christmas break, I volunteer my time to help out these camps because I want to give back.
The best thing you can give [campers] is to smile and cheer them on.
After every practice, after every game, just ask them, "Are you really having fun with it? Are you enjoying going out there and getting to play baseball?
I was working with the pitching group, a 10- or 11-year-old group. We were doing a pitching drill. You had to throw a strike to go to the winner's bracket. If you threw a ball, you moved to the loser's bracket.
It came down to two kids in the championship. The one kid had thrown a strike every single time. And he came up, threw one ball, and the kid behind him throws a strike and he won.
I thought he was going to pout or maybe cry and really get down on himself. But he walked over and he high-fived the kid who won. He was smiling.
That's the best thing you can ask for. Even though he lost, he gave it everything he had and was able to encourage the winner. It was awesome.
I've had phone calls from some teams, and they're keeping their eye on me for the upcoming draft.
I've also officially accepted a full-time position as a project engineer at Gilbane Building Co. in downtown Cleveland, just in case things with baseball don't work out.
One day I'll have to hang up my cleats, so I want to solidify my future with academics.
Marisa Manocchio, 25
An engineering and math teacher at Bio-Med Science Academy in Rootstown, the Kent resident has served as a counselor at Camp Ed Bear, Akron Children's Hospital's weekend camp for kids with cancer or blood disorders.
I was diagnosed in 2010, at the age of 19, with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. I was too old to be a camper, so I decided to be a counselor and had a really great first summer.
I've been doing it ever since.
I always elect to have the youngest girls' cabin. They're anywhere between 6 and 9 years old.
They love to swim. They love horseback riding. They love to do anything and everything.
That's why I love the youngest group of girls, because they're just so determined to do anything they can.
The kids know that we had a blood disorder or cancer and are so much more willing to talk to us about it. It makes it that much more special, the bond we have.
When a camper is there one year and not there the next, you can definitely feel it among their group of friends as well as our counselors. It's heart-wrenching.
We all understand that the disease doesn't discriminate, and some make it and some don't.
We just need to remember the good parts of camp and the time we spent with that child before we lost them.
I have a camper I bonded with the past three years. Her name is Ellie. Her first year, she was timid and cried. I was able to calm her down and get her to stay.
Now as soon as she gets there, she runs at me and jumps at me. It's a really nice experience to know a little girl is excited to see me.
A freshman at Beaumont School in Cleveland Heights, she attended the school's BeauArtz camp for one summer before serving as a counselor last year.
The week before I went to camp, I broke my leg. I got a cast the day before camp. But everyone was really nice and pushed me around.
There were four different activities that we went to every day for an hour. There was cooking, fashion, clay and drawing.
We made something different every day.
They were very creative and different than the art classes you would take in normal grade school.
When we cooked something, we got to eat it. At the end of the camp, we got all the recipes.
We sewed purses and skirts, and we learned how to use the sewing machine. I made a high-low skirt. It was blue. It went to my knee [in front] and my ankle in back.
As a counselor, my favorite part was helping the kids and seeing how much they really liked camp.
We helped the shy kids fit in and make more friends.
I think it's a good experience to meet new people, especially right before high school because you're going to be going to school with a bunch of new people.
"We see it most often right before bed," says Flannery, who is an administrator at Camp Christopher in Bath. "They're exhausted. They want their own bed. They'd like their own routine."
Homesickness gets a bad rap, agrees David Cole, owner and director of Camp Robin Hood.
"It's actually natural," he says. "A lot of times it means the child is well adjusted, and they have a good home life."
After a couple days, most kids develop a new camp routine and anxiety about home slips into the background of the jam-packed day.
But as you start preparing a packing list to head off to camp, here are a few tips to stow away that can help ease the transition.
Talk about it early. Cole recommends having a conversation in the spring, long before sending the child to camp about the urge to come home. Ease in with a discussion about the importance of finishing any project or endeavor, and let your child know coming home early isn't an option. "Tell them, 'You don't have to go away again next summer,' " Cole advises. " 'But we don't quit what we start.' "
Pack something special from home. If the camp allows it, send a favorite stuffed animal or a series of encouraging notes meant to be opened each day. "Your child is going to have certain creature comforts they want to bring with them," says Flannery, "especially if it's their first time away from home."
Call the camp director if you get a sad letter from camp. Often a child doesn't outwardly show homesickness but might tell his or her parents in a letter, says Cole. If Cole knows, he can talk to the camper and the counselors who work with that camper.
"It's important to recognize the difference between a child who is having a momentary episode," Flannery say, "and a child who is truly miserable and not getting past it."
Day camps are a popular choice for many families. Here are a few tips for picking the one that's right for you.
Although summer camp is a time for kids to learn new things, Dr. Carrie Bohenick admits she has learned something by sending her kids to day camp.
"I'm not an outdoorsy person," confesses the Akron Children's Hospital pediatrician and mom of two. "But my kids think it's great to go hike through the mud. I wouldn't have known that if they hadn't gone to camp."
The old-fashioned day camp — sometimes with mud included — is surviving the onslaught of specialty technology, arts and sports camps.
"Day camp is a way to explore lots of different options over the course of weeks," says Jason Habig, history teacher and summer camp director at Hathaway Brown School.
But even day camps come in several shapes and sizes — from those on school grounds to those in a traditional wooded setting and ones that run for a week to those that fill six weeks of summer.
If you're considering a day camp option, here's a few tips for finding the right fit.
Know your child. "There are kids where the day camp model works," says Mark Nestor, director of auxiliary programs at Hawken School. "They love playing traditional and nontraditional sports and having arts and crafts and swimming. There are some kids where that's boring and doesn't engage them."
Ask about a typical day. If there's sports, what type of instruction do the kids get? How much outdoor time is there? What is the counselor-to-kid ratio? Are the counselors adults or high school and college kids? "We're on top of all the social dynamics going on," Nestor says. "So having an adult with each group then frees up the younger counselors to take on that role of big brother or big sister."
Look before you leap. "Don't jump right into a day camp program just because of the timing," Nestor says. "There's a growing market of alternative options for kids."
Develop a playbook for sports camp success by focusing on more than the scoreboard.
Choosing a summer sports camp isn't always fun and games.
With so many choices from single sport, all-sports and even adventure sports camps, it can make a parent's head spin.
Yet, summer can be the perfect time to expose kids to activities that may not be offered at their school or fall outside the popular baseball, basketball and soccer camps.
"Kids may have never played lacrosse before, and they go out and they find out, Wow, this is a lot of fun!" says Tim Baab, president of Blue Streak Summer Camps.
Summer should be a time for fun, not additional athletic pressure. Increased competition means more kids are being pushed to specialize earlier.
"I think a lot of people get caught up that their son needs to be a baseball player," says Brad Ganor, head baseball coach at St. Ignatius High School. "And if he's going to be great, that's all he can do. I think that's a big mistake."
Instead, Dr. Carrie Bohenick, a pediatrician with Akron Children's Hospital, suggests giving your child a range of new experiences by breaking up the summer with other types of camps.
Here are three more tips for coming out with a winning sports camp experience.
Don't rule out sports camp because your child is less coordinated than his peers. An all-sports camp can help kids who aren't naturally athletic develop motor skills without the competitive pressure to be the best at a single sport.
"It's about giving everyone a chance to catch it and kick it and throw it," says Baab.
Find the right level of competition. Talk with your child about what makes her most comfortable. Some kids, for example, may be happier at a single-gender camp. But Baab has also had girls in camp who thrive on being able to compete against boys in the summer when they play on single-gender teams at school.
Remember it's about more than winning. Victories on the athletic field isn't always evident on the scoreboard. Encourage your child to have fun and build on her strengths. And even if she never gets to first base or makes a basket, focus on something successful at camp — like trying a new sport of making new friends.
After all, Ganor says, athletics teaches teamwork, resilience and determination. "Sports creates all those great things that make well-rounded individuals," he says.