“As parents begin to explore camps, whether traditional, science, computer or sports, they should realize it’s not as much about the specific content but the whole experience of being away from home and meeting people from different backgrounds and places,” says Sarah Baughman, owner of Camp Carysbrook, a rustic camp for girls in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. That’s not to say a camp’s focus isn’t important, agree area residential camp administrators, it’s just that there’s more to camp than meets the eye.

Multiple Choices

For some, particularly teens considering going away for the first time, a camp’s specialty?or lack thereof?can be a selling point. “We specialize in not specializing in everything,” says Gordon Josey, owner/director of Camp Twin Creeks, a coed camp in West Virginia. “We’re a good old-fashioned summer camp offering sports, outdoor adventure, arts, theater and water activities.”

Traditional camps, which have been around for 150 years, remain popular and are a great way to introduce children to the camp experience. “If a kid isn’t sure about the specialty stuff, try giving her a broad camp experience the first time out,” says Kim Betts, director of administration at Virginia’s Camp Horizons (and a former camper and counselor there). “If your child finds she really loves archery or horseback riding, you can find a specialty camp the following year.”

Search Options

For parents interested in exploring camp options, Betts suggests visiting the American Camp Association’s website (www.campparents.org). An advanced search mechanism allows parents to locate camps based on activity?there are 64, including caving, fishing, performing arts, riflery and scuba?and targeted focus, such as academics, bereavement, equestrian and weight loss. Other search options allow parents to find camps that accommodate children with special needs, offer longer or shorter sessions or are close to home.

While the Internet is a good resource, “Word of mouth is still the number one way we get campers,” says Josey. He suggests talking with family and friends to find out about their camp experiences.

Josey also recommends camp referral services. “They’re like travel agents for summer camps,” he says. “One of the problems is that everything looks good on the Internet, but these consultants actually visit camps.”

“Camp fairs are a good way to meet our staff,” says Joe Greitzer, owner/director of Camp Rim Rock, a traditional camp for girls in West Virginia, which is known for its riding program. “We can answer questions on the phone, but having a familiar face is really important.”

So essential is that face that many camp directors make home visits. “It’s important to meet the person who will be looking after your child,” says Josey. “After [the visit], Johnny may say, ‘I didn’t like that guy,’ or, ‘Wow, what he said sounds great.’”

Open houses give new campers a chance not just to meet camp staff, but also to learn the lay of the land. Once considered primarily a marketing tool, open houses now are used by many camps to orient new campers. “So, on opening day, when your child is here with 250 other campers, not only will she have a familiar face but she’ll know where she’s sleeping and where she’ll get her meals,” says Greitzer.

Away from Home

Easing the transition from home to camp is especially important for first-time campers. But according to camp directors, almost everyone stays and has a good time. “How we handle homesickness is the number one question asked by parents,” says Josey, “but the vast majority of campers have such a good time that it’s not an issue.” The number of campers who leave because they miss home is low?around one in 1,000?say the camp administrators interviewed for this article.

“A good camp keeps campers busy,” says Baughman, “because it’s during rest hour or in the evening when they’re getting ready for bed that they’ll miss home. But, our staff is well prepared to handle that.”

Sometimes the separation is harder on the parents, notes Betts. “That’s why we post pictures daily for parents to look at on a secure website,” she says.

While most camps discourage phone conversations between parents and campers, Baughman suggests checking with the camps you're considering as to how they keep parents informed. “Ask them, ‘Can I call and will you tell me how she’s doing?’” she says.

What makes dealing with homesickness most difficult for camp administrators is when well-intentioned parents promise their child that if she doesn’t have a good time, the parents will come and get her. “That sets a child up for failure and gives her little motivation to work through the problem,” says Greitzer.

“Some kids who are homesick still love camp,” says Josey. “It just takes a few days to get used to not having all the creature comforts.”

Back to Basics

More often than not, that means no electronic games and cell phones. “We want the focus to be on that connection with nature, that outdoor living experience,” says Baughman.

Camp takes kids back to a time?before texting, Facebook and instant messaging?“when social interactions were in person, when they would chat, play cards or braid each other’s hair,” says Josey.

While the unplugged teen may seem an oxymoron, camp administrators say most have no trouble adapting to the rule. “I’m surprised it’s not harder,” says Greitzer, who enjoys the “more civilized conversations that result from the lack of anonymity.”

Discovering new ways to relate to people, exploring new activities and learning to be independent are at the heart of the camp experience. “It’s such a wonderful experience for kids to be somewhere without family, where they get to be who they want to be?not someone’s big sister or little sister, not the athletic one or shy one,” says Baughman. “They can make decisions and new friends and gain confidence in their ability to do so.”

“Although camp is a safe, nurturing environment, kids still get the opportunity to solve problems and to take responsibility for things,” says Josey. “Parents often find when their kid comes home she seems slightly more responsible, tidies up after herself?at least for a short while.”

“You learn so many life skills at camp,” says Greitzer. “You realize you’re part of a community and that you can’t have everything exactly when you want it and how you want it….Camp is great preparation for college, especially freshman year?and beyond.”