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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 6/3/2009 1:47:26 PM ET 2009-06-03T17:47:26

Sending children away to summer camp can be hard on everyone involved, especially at first. But the camp experience is something that has helped countless kids make new friends, learn new skills and come home brimming with newfound confidence. And if you’re a parent who works full time, this move also can give you untold relief from stress about child care in the summer months.

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With approximately 10,000 camps across the country, though, how are you supposed to pick one? And just how much money will you have to spend?

The following tips can help you navigate the selection process.

1. Get the ball rolling. If you haven’t already found a sleep-away camp for this summer, start concentrating on choosing one immediately. Many enrollments happen between December and March, so by this stage of the game, you might land on waiting lists or be turned away from camp options that appeal to you. The good news, though, is that the deadlines may not be as onerous for day camps in your area.

2. Reflect on your child’s interests and personality. Just because the child of someone you know liked a certain camp, that doesn’t mean yours will. The same camp might not even be a good fit for two siblings from the same family. Interview a variety of camp directors until you get a good sense of what will be best for your child.

3. Decide between specialized or general. For a first sleep-away camp experience, many counselors recommend camps with a general focus so a child can discover new interests. A host of specialty camps also have emerged in recent years, focusing on everything from ballet to diving to football to science to video-game animation to overseas archeological digs, so remember to consider those too.

4. Count the costs. Privately run sleep-away camps charge about $400 to $2,000 a week — a price tag that typically covers general activities, meals, basic medical care and incidentals such as laundry. You can search for camp details on the Web sites of the National Camp Association, the American Camp Association, MySummerCamps.com and numerous other camp-directory Web sites.

5. You can find bargain sleep-away camps. Camps offered by nonprofit and service organizations such as church groups, YMCA, YWCA, Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA generally cost less than privately run camps — between about $175 and $500 a week. Some church camps charge just $10, and some camps charge low-income children nothing at all.

6. Day camps can be great deals. Check now with your city or county recreation department about daytime camps in your area. Many charge $30 to $150 a week for a wide range of activities, from sports to nature walks to cultural programs to swimming. (Note that some of the camp possibilities mentioned in tips 5 and 6 can end up being less expensive than day care. Some “pre-school” day camps will accept children as young as 3.)

7. Ask about subsidies, financial aid and payment plans. Most camps offer scholarships based on need. Apply for scholarships as early as possible, and never assume that you earn too much to qualify. Also, most camps also allow you to spread costs out over several months if needed.

8. Inquire about refund policies. Some camps never provide refunds, while some do so only by a certain date or if your child gets sick. That’s why it’s so important to ask about the policies up front.

9. Factor in other costs. Most camp fees do not cover specialized activities, such as horseback riding or field trips, or specialized gear, such as team uniforms. Also, don’t forget about the costs of care packages and spending money for your child. Once you’ve tallied everything up, compare the total dollar amount for the camp experience with the amount you’re likely to spend on food, activities and care if your child doesn’t go anywhere this summer. Sometimes the cost difference will be staggering; in other cases, it will be surprisingly negligible. This can affect your decision as well.

10. Consider timing. If your child tends to get homesick, you might be tempted to choose a camp session that’s very short. Many camp counselors say longer stays give shy children enough time to overcome homesickness and make friends.

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