Never mind that the calendar says winter. For several hundred families attending a camp fair on a February Sunday, the season inside a suburban Holiday Inn is already summer.
Photos lining the 36 exhibit booths show idyllic scenes of children swimming, sailing, and hiking amid sparkling lakes and towering pines. Videos and brochures promise adventure, skills, and fun. While parents inquire about camp activities, a 10-year-old named Matt gets down to basics by asking a director, "What kind of mattresses do you have?"
For parents of the 5 million American children who head off to camp each summer, fairs like this one, held in major cities between January and March, offer one way to meet directors and gather information. As Karen Bane of Hanover, Mass., who is here with her husband and two sons, says, "It's a big decision."
That big decision is becoming more complex as camps grow more numerous and specialized. The National Camp Association in New York counts nearly 10,000 children's summer camps in the United States. Yet Jeff Solomon, executive director, sees a trend away from camp fairs. Many parents find them overwhelming, he says, and the events include only a limited number of camps.
Instead, more families are relying on what Mr. Solomon calls the two most popular ways of choosing a camp: word of mouth - knowing someone who has gone there - and advisory services, which match campers with appropriate programs.
Two other trends are also changing camps, directors say. Instead of sending children to a general camp for seven or eight weeks, more parents are requesting one- or two-week sessions. Many are also choosing specialty camps that focus on computers, academics, or a single sport.
Ted Hoyt, director of Camp Tohkomeupog for boys in East Madison, N.H., calls both trends "disturbing." Camp, he says, "should be about experiencing the out-of-doors. It should be a broadening of children's horizons, not just doing things they've already done at home, like soccer and basketball."
Camp experts concerned about short sessions note that the first week is an adjustment period, when children learn what camp is about. In longer programs, Mr. Hoyt says, "Kids have time to build up trust with counselors and friendships with their cabin mates. And they have time to really accomplish something."
Cindy Pendergast of Mattapoisett, Mass., who wants a general camp for her daughter, agrees. "I think kids need a chance to let down and have fun," she says.
Adds Gayle Porter Lewis, a schoolteacher and head of girls at Camp Nashoba North in Raymond, Maine, "I find children who go to camp make academic gains in school, even though they're not actually doing anything we might consider academic."
For some families, the desire for shorter sessions is rooted in economics. Not-for-profit camps average between $225 and $425 a week, according to Barbara Davis, director of public services at the New England section of the American Camping Association. Private camps can range from $525 to $800 a week, she says.
All camps must be licensed by a state board of health, Solomon says. About 2,200 camps are also accredited by the American Camping Association. Accreditation, which is voluntary, involves a review every three years by trained camp directors. Camps must meet 300 industry standards. in such areas as health and safety, management, personnel, transportation, and facilities
Although the National Camping Association (NCA), does not accredit camps, it uses what Solomon calls a "triple litmus test" to determine which programs to recommend: A camp must be licensed. It must be evaluated annually by NCA advisers. It must also score well on an evaluation survey sent to camp families. A well-supervised program, Solomon says, maintains a 1 to 4 staff-to-camper ratio. For waterskiing and horseback riding, the ratio should be 1 to 3 or 1 to 2.
Parents' priorities vary widely. Laurie Edelman, executive director of the American Camping Association's New York section, says that for some families, "The most important thing is that the facilities be really first class. For others, the primary factor is that the child is interested in roughing it. Some are looking for specific activities or varying degrees of structure. Others want their child to get a lot of attention."
Mrs. Lewis urges parents to consider their reasons for sending children to camp, saying, "I would want my child to learn independent living strategies, to have fun, and to get exposure to things they might not learn otherwise."
She also emphasizes the value of meeting the director and, if possible, visiting the site. "Parents need to be able to look at the camp director and say, 'I want my child to be influenced by this person,' because every camp is shaped by the goals of the individual who directs the camp."
Murray Scherer, codirector of Camp Eagle Hill in Elizaville, N.Y., favors structured programs rather than "hangout camps" that require no specific activities. "Children should be fruitfully occupied with skills to learn and goals to accomplish," he says.
Parents new to camping often hold mistaken ideas about appropriate ages, session lengths, and camp locations, Solomon finds.
"Younger is better," he says, noting that children between the ages of 6 and 9 typically adjust better to being away from home than older children. He suggests first-time campers begin with a general camp, which is more nurturing.
He also recommends that new campers stay at least four weeks, since longer programs offer more stability. Some camps offer a two-week trial period with the option of extending to four weeks.
Finally, Solomon says, "It's more important to find an appropriate camp that's three hours away than to find one less appropriate that's across the street."
To illustrate the lifelong rewards of camp, Pam Cobb, director of Camp Runoia in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, tells about an 88-year-old alumna who traveled from Kentucky last summer for a camp reunion. "She could still canoe perfectly," Ms. Cobb says. "She brought her tennis racquet and played around a bit, and she still has friends she met at camp in the 1930s. The camping experience keeps us all young at heart."