As this issue of Towson Lifestyle goes to press, there is snow on the ground, and the daytime temperatures are hovering around the freezing mark. But that doesn’t mean it’s too early to be doing your research and signing your kids up for summer programs. The most popular, which are often the most specialized, tend to fill up fast!

Case in point: A friend whose daughter is a Girl Scout says the camp she attends each summer is in such high demand that it is completely booked within 10 minutes of their opening up the online registrations. Most of the camps contacted say their programs are already at least 50 percent full by mid-February, and that many of the most popular are sold out by the time spring break wraps up in April.

While it may not be the norm for camps to sell out as fast as, say, your average Springsteen concert, the takeaway is clear: The best camps are in high demand, and if you procrastinate, your child is likely to lose out. 

Towson Lifestyle reached out to the senior staff at several of the area’s most popular summer programs and asked them to share their tips on how to mount an effective camp search. With their help, we’ve compiled a quick checklist to get you started.

Ask for recommendations

While you can get a pretty good idea of what each camp offers by going to their website, there’s no substitute for recommendations from those who have gone before you. Ask other parents for recommendations. Find out which programs their kids love and why.

Attend open houses

Many camps open their doors in the spring to give you a sneak peek at their offerings. Take this opportunity to meet with staff, tour the facilities and get answers to all your questions. What is the camper-to-teacher ratio? Is there a nurse on-site? What do you do about allergies?

“Since camp offers children an opportunity to explore new activities and ideas, and to delve more deeply into subjects about which they are already passionate, parents should consider how a camp’s programming will contribute to the development of their child’s interests and character,” says Shrijana Puri, director of Park Camps.

Range of programs 

While you can still find the traditional day camp offerings of swimming, sports, musical theater, and arts and crafts, today’s camps have much more specialized offerings that enable campers to immerse themselves in the subjects that really excite them. Think advanced robotics, printmaking and ceramics, and digital film production, to name a few. Many of the most established camps offer dozens of different programs, if not more. Garrison Forest boasts a whopping 110!

Who’s in charge?

Find out who is going to be leading your child. While some camps rely on high school and college students to look after campers, many of the most established camps hire only certified teachers and veteran camp experts. What’s important to you?

Save money

Most camps offer early-bird discounts; the earlier you register, the more you can save, typically 5 to 10 percent. You can often save even more by paying in full in advance rather than simply making a deposit. Other discounts apply for those who sign a child up for multiple sessions, as well as those with more than one camper in the family. 

Rinse and Repeat 

Find out what the camp’s renewal rate is. Do campers come back year after year or do they try a program and move on? According to Ashly Fishell-Shaffer, the executive director of Camp Bmore Kids, when area campers find a program they like, it’s not unusual for them to keep coming back for seven to 10 years. How do others compare?

Cancellation policy 

Will a camp give you a refund should your plans change? Or, will they let you apply the funds to another program? If you’re concerned your little one won’t be as excited about learning Mandarin once summer rolls around, you’ll do well to find out up front.

How are the facilities?

All camps are not created equal. Are the fields in good shape? Is the pool clean? And, what are the indoor facilities like, for those rainy days? Steve Cusick, assistant director of camps for Summer at Friends, explains that the scale of the furniture, bathrooms, and other amenities at a university can be too large, especially for younger campers, making a school-based camp a better fit.

Field Trips … Or Not

For many, the obligatory day trip to Hershey Park has long been a staple of the camp experience. But for those who are concernedabout their children traveling off of camp property, Cusick suggests considering a camp where the activities come to the campers, and not vice versa.

In an increasingly competitive age, many families treat summer camp as just another opportunity for continuing education and enrichment. While camps typically offer a less structured and more relaxed learning environment than schools do, Tara Rosenbaum, director of external programs and campus use for Garrison Forest School, wants families to keep things in perspective. Above all, she says “Don’t forget about fun!”