Despite frigid temperatures and unexpected snow in some parts of the country, now’s the time to start thinking summer—camps that is. Summer camps are one of the best ways to keep kids physically engaged and intellectually stimulated when they are out of school. For many moms, sending their kids to summer camp is unthinkable. On the one hand they don’t want to part with their children, and on the other, they think it’s unaffordable. But, by getting a head start on summer camps now, you’ll be sure to find one that fits your child’s needs and your budget before all of the spots are taken.

The first thing you need to ask yourself when choosing a camp is, do you want a day camp where the children come home every night or do you prefer a sleep-away camp? Day camps are a great option for kids who aren’t used to being away from home or for families on a budget. You can often get all of the value of a sleep-away during the daytime hours and save yourself the added costs of boarding and extra meals. On the other hand, a sleep-away camp has benefits too—new friends, lifelong memories, and an increased sense of independence.

There is a wide range of programs offered at both kinds of camps. From general socialization activities, to arts and crafts, sports, music and even some that offer very targeted curriculums. If your child plays an instrument, they could attend a band camp, or your little athlete could spend their entire summer perfecting their soccer skills. There are science and engineering camps and math camps, which are great for kids who love these subjects or are fascinated by how things work. For older kids, there are numerous entrepreneurship camp that introduce them to free enterprise and the world of business. A quick look at gives you an idea of all the options available. Be cautious when choosing your child’s camp based only on the curriculum or activities though; they may like acting and be interested in drama, but an entire eight-week performing arts camp could actually stifle their budding passion. Ask your child lots of questions and involve your child in the decision.

The cost of a camp depends on a variety of factors. If you are interested in a sleep-away camp for your child but are nervous about the expense, look into short-term camps, those that offer two-weeks or one-month sessions. For example, Campus Kids, outside of New York City, provides boarding on Monday through Friday and sends the kids home for the weekends. Cheley, in Colorado, even offers a one-week family camp that allows your kid’s summer camp to double up as the family vacation.

If budgetary concerns are at the top of your list, consider programs offered by the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. These programs are nationwide and offer camps at a lower cost and often at a sliding fee. These organizations make camps possible for everyone, making it possible for you child to have a camp experience even if money is tight. Sherwood Forest Camp  outside of St. Louis is another example of an affordable camp, as it caters to children living in poverty. Many towns and counties run their own camps through the local parks and recreation departments. These can be attended for a fraction of the cost and your child may already know some of the other attendees. Some of the pricier camps also offer scholarships or discounts when reservations are made early. Don’t be afraid to ask if such discounts and options are available.  

When you’ve come up with a short-list of camps that are doable in regards to cost, location and time-frame, sit down with your child and discuss the options. While ultimately the decision is yours, having your child involved in the process will make that decision easier and also reduce the likelihood of any last-minute apprehension on their part.

Contact the camps and ask all the questions that are on your mind. When entrusting someone with the care of your child, whether for a few hours a day or a few weeks out of the summer, no question is a silly one. Ask about sleeping arrangements, special dietary needs, access to telephones and email, parent visits, medical care, staff training and anything else that you feel is important. (You’d be surprised with some of the rules out there, so make sure you are okay with the ones at your camp of choice.) Finally, if you are considering a down payment, reservation fee, or paying the tuition in full, ask about cancellations and refunds.

This is not the type of decision you want to make in a hurry, nor one that should be made at the last minute when only a few spots are open at the least desirable camps. The earlier you start, the more options you have and the likelier the chances that you can get a spot at camps that offer financial help. Your child will be a happy camper.