Summertime learning loss, coupled with rudimentary reductions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, can put your child’s life skills progress behind. Now more than ever, it’s important to be thoughtful and intentional about how your kids will spend their summer. Reinforcing or picking up new life skills during the summer can be a great way to solidify common foundations and firm up lifelong habits.

In addition, thinking about your family’s summer plans early can eliminate the stress of the typical end-of-school year scramble. Doing the research and discovery now can help you create a custom summer that’s a good fit and, most importantly, a memorable experience for your kids.

Begin a dialogue with your children. Get them participating in the process. Find out their interests and create priority lists for favorite specialized camps and reach categories. Reach buckets can be camps that will challenge them and develop personal growth or more expensive camps that will require saving or more resources.

Start a camp spreadsheet and keep a list that you can go back to year after year. Reuse your list of successful camp experiences as each child in your family reaches a certain age—so you don’t reinvent the wheel every summer. Online reviews, ratings and feedback from neighbors and parents of your children’s classmates are also good sources for information. Start your list and begin looking for answers that satisfy your criteria.

Consider the following five criteria as you create your checklist for summer camps:

1. Health and Safety

Pandemic or not, always review a camp’s protocols and preparations for keeping your child safe, minor incidents and emergencies.

“What are the camp’s safety protocols, especially around COVID?” Nadia Pedersen, senior director of Virginia operations for Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington (BGCGW) advises. “Are staff qualified and have they passed background checks?”

Inquiring about pickup and drop-off procedures, evaluating camper-to-counselor ratios and reviewing a breakdown of hour-to-hour activities within a camper’s day can reveal much about a camp’s priorities, especially when it comes to putting kids and safety first.

2. Location

Along with safety, camp location is another consideration. How far is the camp from you or your job? Can you get to it quickly if you need to? Is it positioned in a safe area and environment?  How will camp administrators or counselors communicate with you each day or in emergencies (such as a text message, telephone call or email)?

Touting the camp’s communication systems and personnel infrastructure is a way camps can stand out from one another. A good communication system is both a safety tool and a benefit that can reassure a parent’s piece of mind.

3. Budget

Do discounts exist for signing up siblings or multiple children? Are families eligible for reductions in cost for early-bird registrations or signing up for multiple camp weeks? Asking questions about financial aid or scholarships, and getting answers early from camp administration, can help you determine which camps fall into your favorite and affordable categories, as well as put others into reach categories. File more expensive camp options under your aspirational categories that may require a change in your family’s financial plans and goals.

4. Activities (In Person and Virtual)

“At Boys & Girls Clubs summer camps, a large selection of summer programs are actually dedicated to science, technology and math (STEM),” Pedersen says. “Well-trained and invested youth development professionals and partnerships with well-known organizations like Lockheed Martin enhance a camper’s experience.”

Digging deeper into how a camp’s themes and weekly objectives are supported with related activities is a good sign of how well designed a camp’s programming can be. These elements can also indicate how much new learning your child can potentially gain. This attention to detail in a camp’s programming can increase a child’s interests in a particular subject or topic.

The pandemic brought us remote work, remote school and remote summer camp. However, the qualities of a good virtual summer camp or program should contain a few special nuances.

“Besides a variety of activities, a virtual program should have built-in socialization activities,” says Minnie Quartey Annan, senior director of impact and innovation for BGCGW says. “We use contests like jumping jack challenges, scavenger hunts and polls to build a sense of community with our virtual Clubs and remote summer programs. We also sent the kids supplies so they could feel, touch and interact with the same arts and science-based materials. It produced a sense of reality and helped them to be more involved together.”

Virtual camps need to have more than a goal of instilling skills. These camps also need to focus on the child’s complete experience and the building of a community.

5. Culture and Discipline

Finally, consider a camp’s position with regard to the kid culture. Are they known for or do they have activities that foster friendship building? Do opportunities exist specifically for peer-to-peer engagement or small group activities? Does the camp have a written statement regarding bullying and teasing? How will housekeeping rules like these be presented to the kids and how will staff enforce the rules?

Teambuilding, teamwork and leadership are life skills that can grow and blossom from a child’s summer camp experience.

Winter is here, but it is never too early to begin thinking about your child’s summer experiences. Registrations sometimes open early as well. Be proactive now so that you can hit the ground running once things thaw out.

Originally published in Washington Family Magazine.