Each year around this time, parents start asking me about summer camp. They want to know which are the best ones. Just like with choosing preschool, I can’t give you a simple answer to that. Because it all depends on what your needs or goals are.
So, I recommend that before you look at camps, you first answer these questions for yourself.
What are your basic logistical needs?
- Scope: Do you need full-time care all summer while you work? Or full-time care for a few weeks out of the summer so you can focus on adult projects those weeks? Or part-time enrichment camps every day? (My youngest is effectively an only child AND he’s full of energy, so I find it helpful to start every day with a few hours of camp to give him social play opportunity and let him burn off some energy while I get some quiet project time. But we still have the afternoons for lazy summer days at the pool, unstructured playtime at the park, trips to the zoo, and so on.) I also know of families where the grandparents watch the children for a week or two in the summer, but take the kids to a day camp during the day, which may be more fun than hanging out at the grandparents house all day.
- Schedule: What time would it work for you to drop off? What time can you pick up? Realistically what works with your needs?
- Location: I’ve often enrolled my kids in camps that are quite a ways from home. (Like wilderness camps and farm camps that were both about 40 minutes from our house.) It works for me, because my work is portable, so I just bring my laptop and while they’re at camp, I sit at nearby parks or coffee shops and get my work done. But you may prefer to stick closer to home.
- Cost: Costs range a lot! And it’s hard to compare costs between camps, as some camps are 5 hours long, some 6, some 7… For example, even within the Bellevue Parks department, for a 7 year old, the hourly cost could be anywhere between: $9 per hour for theater camp or ballet camp to $11.50 for Lego/STEM to $22 per hour for pottery camp (high materials cost, I’m assuming.) Of course, if you’re just looking for an activity focus for the week, and don’t necessarily need 6 – 8 hours of child care, maybe the total cost is more important than the hourly cost. The Lego camp is $400 a week (9 – 4 each day), and the pottery camp is $242 a week (10 am – 12:30 pm).
- Age requirements. There are plenty of camps for kids age 6 – 12. It’s harder to find camps for little ones, and if you do, they tend to be EITHER full-time child care OR very short – a few hours at a time. Versus camps for older kids can have a wide range of schedules.
The next question is what are your goals for having a child attend summer camp? Is it just about child care while working? You may choose to have them attend the same camp every week all summer because having that routine is easiest for you. Is it about summer fun? You may choose lots of camps that emphasize being outdoors and playing, or may send your kid to the same camps their buddies are going to so they have built-in friends. If you want to expose your child to lots of different skills and activities to broaden their life experience, you may choose to dabble through a: farm camp, wilderness camp, theatre camp, art camp, science camp, and multi-sports camp all in one summer. Is there something you want your child to learn that you aren’t able to teach? You may choose that opportunity. Do you want a church-based camp, or a scouting camp? Or do you want a family camp that you can ALL attend together? Each family may have unique goals for each child.
Limitations: You should also keep in mind if your child has limits to what they can do. My youngest is autistic. He’s also very bright, so he can do so well at a camp that the staff never realizes his challenges. But he has limits… and when he passes those limits, he has giant meltdowns. So, he does best when I enroll him in half day camps, not full day, and when he is one of the oldest kids in the program rather than one of the youngest so the social/emotional expectations are set at a lower developmental level. Know your child, and choose camps that set them up for success. (Note: there are specialty camps that are solely for kids on the spectrum and that really focus on social/emotional skills – those can be a good match for some families’ needs.)
Research your options
Check out your parks department, and those in neighboring cities. They tend to offer LOTS of different camps, in lots of interest areas and locations and may be fairly affordable options. Check the Boys & Girls Club, Campfire, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Your city may have a summer camp fair (in the Seattle area, ParentMap sponsors four or five camp fairs in February and March where you can discover lots of options for summer camps. Check ads in local parenting magazines – but keep in mind that there are lots more great programs that can’t afford to advertise, so also check out word-of-mouth recommendations. Ask your friends, family, parents of your kids’ friends, and parents at the playground about what camps they have loved (or not).
Once you’ve collected names of interesting options, you can do your research online to learn more. Look at their websites and Facebook pages, and also search to see what else other people say about them online.
Questions to Ask
Things to look for when you’re researching your options: what is the typical schedule for the day? How much is structured activity and how much is free play? What activities does your child participate in? How many children attend? What is their adult to child staff ratio? What experience / training do those adults have? (Note: the vast majority of summer camp staff is students, age 17 – 22 or so, with one or two years of summer camp experience.) What backup staff is available in case unexpected challenges arise at a camp site? You may not be able to find this info online, but it’s helpful if they do have this. (I had one camp we went to the first week of their season last year and it was the first year they’d used that site and the young, inexperienced staff faced some unexpected challenges without experienced folks on-site to back them up… they got there, but it took them a while – I’m now inclined to choose long-term camps for the beginning of the season, and save those “start-up” experiences for later in the summer when they’ve worked out the bugs.) Do they have an indoor option in case of weather problems (too wet, or too hot)? I don’t find this a necessity but there was a parent who I talked to last year who was outraged that a camp her child attended did not have an indoor option for a hot, sunny day.
After you go through this process, you’ll have a lot better idea of what you’re looking for in a good summer camp. And one of the nice things about summer camps is that they’re only one week long. It’s a lot less pressure than choosing a school for a full school year. I figure it’s easy to just try it out for a week, and if it’s great, we return every year, if it’s not, it’s a learning experience we move on from.
Camps We Have Liked
Sometimes when I offer parents ‘more questions to ask’ instead of answers to their questions, that can be frustrating for them. So, here are some answers to what I think of as some of the “best” summer camps my kids have attended over the years. (All on the Eastside of Seattle metro / King County)
These are my personal experiences as a parent, not representative of the views of my employers (Bellevue College and Parent Trust for Washington Children.)
My logistical needs for location, cost and schedule were always fairly flexible, so I was able to prioritize my goals of broad learning experiences for my kids. I put them in part-time summer camps most weeks of each summer, because I find I’m the best parent to my kids when I have a few hours to myself each day to work on my projects – that energizes me to come back for a great afternoon with them.
My older kids did some fabulous camps that I haven’t revisited with my youngest, so I don’t have current info on them. But when my kids attended these camps (between about 1998 and 2013), they were fabulous:
- Wolf Camp – a wilderness skills camp. Day camp for ages 6 – 11 in Issaquah or Puyallup. Overnight camps for age 9 – 17 around Washington State.
- Shoo Fly Farm – a day camp which captures everything you would imagine summer childhood on a farm to include – take care of and play with farm animals, making butter and jam, tie-dyeing, and swinging on a tire swing. Registration tends to fill early!! (For 2019, on January 28 all but one of this summer’s camps are already full.)
- DigiPen Academy – their Project Fun camps for k-12 teach programming skills for video game development. My oldest child did them as a teenager. (He’s now a paraeducator. My middle child who did the fashion design camps is now a software developer… it’s interesting how our kids turn out!)
- Stone Soup Theatre Camp in Seattle, for ages 5 – 15.
- Columbia Gorge Theatre Camp. Overnight camp in Portland area, for ages 10 – 18. A huge formative part of both my older kids’ lives, not just their theatre skills. Love it!
Here are camps that my younger child has attended recently and enjoyed (most are camps my older kids also went to years ago.)
- Studio East. (Also a huge part of our family’s history!) Theatre camps for ages 4 – 19, held at multiple locations in Kirkland. Kids spend a really fun week learning dance, music, lines, and more, and put on a show at the end of the week. Theatre education is great not just for learning theatre but also for social skills and teamwork. They really encourage creativity and include kids’ ideas in the experience.
- Pacific Science Center camps. We’ve tried lots of science camps. PacSci’s are the best, I think, for science learning. They offer lots of themes, in multiple locations throughout King County. Staff is well-trained, and curriculum well-developed. PreK through grade 8. What I don’t love – they’re pretty indoors and pretty structured for a summer camp experience. And, all their camps for my son’s age (2-3 grade) are full day (either 8:45 – 3:30 or 8:45 – 4.) That’s simply more than my kid can handle. So, he tends to make it through Monday to Wednesday of a PacSci camp, starts melting down on Thursday and on Friday they ask me to take him home partway through the day. I love that they’re starting to note “sensory-friendly” camps on their schedule that are a better match for kids with autism or sensory issues. I wish they’d realize that a shorter schedule would also help.
- Wilderness Awareness. Day camps for ages 4 – 13, overnights for 11 – 18. Day camps in Kenmore, Issaquah, Seattle, and Carnation. Nature games, story-telling, songs, hikes in the woods, animal tracking, and more. Camp Terra at Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon is supposed to be fabulous, but we’ve not been able to attend yet.
- Pedalheads. Because of my disability, I’m not able to teach my son to ride a bike, so I love having a bike camp option. They offer everything from 60 minute long camps for 2 – 3 year old beginning riders to full day camps for older kids with strong skills. Many parents experience that their kids start the week not knowing how to ride, and are riding independently by the end of the week. My son ended his first week still on training wheels, and in the one week he took the next year, he could just barely ride without training wheels. But he still had a great time both weeks. They also have a Heroheads sports camp he has taken twice and greatly enjoyed. (The photo at the top was taken there.)
- Skyhawks offers many camps at many sites. Many are focused on a single sport, but I really like their multi-sports camp. Although we’re a physically active family, we don’t really play team sports, so I like that my son gets to spend a couple weeks each summer being trained in baseball, basketball, and soccer skills so that if a buddy on a playground asks him to play he at least has a clue.
- Family Camp. With my older kids, we thought about attending a family camp, like the YMCA camps at Camp Orkila and Colman, or Cascades Camp, or North Cascades Institute. But, we never did. Then, four years ago, we started attending Eliot, a week-long family camp for Unitarian Universalists. Partway through that first week, I looked at my partner and said “I guess we know what we’ll be doing for one week every July from now on.” It is a joy to spend a week at camp, singing, tie-dyeing, dancing, listening to Harry Potter under a tree, swimming in the lagoon, and re-connecting with people we see every year at camp, who range in age from birth to 90-something. We love family camp!
- Bellevue College Parent Education programs usually offer a few summer camps each summer for ages 3 – 5. These can be especially helpful for young ones who are just about to start drop-off preschool or kindergarten to get them used to being without you at class. This year, they’ll be offered at Pine Lake Coop preschool in Sammamish and Bellevue Overlake Coop. Details coming soon.
- Arena Sports – these win for most flexible camp option! 5 locations. Half day OR full day, with extended care options, for ages 3 – 12. They play soccer and active games, they play on the bounce house. As a friend once described an activity: “it sweats ’em up good.” We would attend these on weeks when we had plans on some days but had some free, and I wanted to have my child burn off some energy.
- Steve & Kate’s Camp – It’s been held on the campus of Bellevue’s The Little School for many years (although they’re at different sites for 2019). The advantage is their flexibility. It’s a huge age range from pre-K to 7th grade. You don’t need to sign up in advance – once you’ve registered for the year, you just show up there in the morning, whenever you want to for as many days as you want to. And when kids are there, they have virtually complete freedom to choose from many different activities (film-making, bread-making, games, robotics, sewing). It’s a “free range” approach. Works great for many kids. But for my kid, he basically sat in the “lounge” reading books or watched other kids programming on tablets. It was fine for days I needed child care, but it’s lot more expensive than Arena Sports.
We’ve also done various one-shot camps that were great but we never happened to return to. Like one year I visited friends in Portland for a week while my kids attended Do Jump circus camp. There were summers where my child’s interests of the moment led to Fashion Design or Nature Illustration camp. We attended several camps sponsored by the zoo and our local parks departments. So, the ones listed here are just a sampling of what our family has done, but there are SO MANY MORE great options out there.
What have I missed? What other camps in King County have you had a good experience with? Add a comment below. (If possible, include with your recommendation: what ages it’s for, where it’s located, and what you loved about it.)
And if you’d rather just spend time hanging out at parks with your kid, read my posts about local parks, or if you have a toddler too young for camp and need ideas for activities, check out cheap dates with toddlers.