Have you done it yet? Conducted the research, braved the lines and paid the fees?

Yes, fellow parents, summer is almost here and that means that it is high time that you start planning some fun and enriching activities for the kiddos! That is, unless you want the pleasure of their company 24/7 for the approximately 80 days of summer vacation!

Over the past nine years, my two kids have attended a variety of camps, so while I’m far from an expert, I have ridden in this rodeo a few times. Here are a few hints and tips — some learned the hard way — from a veteran:

1 Start ’em young. Is your 3-year-old too young for a few hours of camp each day? Absolutely not! After all, they will probably be starting preschool in the fall and a little dose of summer camp will prep them for that routine. My kids’ favorite back in the day? The YMCA Kindercamp: http://www.family-ymca.org/Camp.html

2 Location, location, location! Many camps (especially for younger children) are only a couple to a few hours long. Is there really any sense in driving an hour or more round-trip for a 2 1/2 hour camp? Even if gas prices stay low this summer, I vote no. Unless the camp is truly unique, there is likely a reasonable alternative closer to your home. Look around for the nearest good options.

3 Try the buddy system. My kids are generally happier when they have a friend at camp. This can also help with the driving, either with an organized car pool, or even a last minute, “Help! Can you pick up Janie?” scenario.

4 Ask for referrals. Do you have a neighbor with kids who are a couple of years older than yours? Benefit from their experience; get recommendations.

5 However…critically consider the referrals in light of your child’s personality and preferences. The summer that my daughter Laura was 5, “everyone” we knew raved about a certain day camp at a local elementary school. I thought the camp sounded pretty boring and Laura wasn’t too excited either, but I allowed myself to be carried away by the majority. The result? A two week stint that Laura hated and I regretted paying for. We never signed up for that camp again!

Best of luck to you, parents of happy-campers-to-be! Pack up the water bottles and the SPF and enjoy the summer!

(Webmaster’s note: Be sure to check out our summer camp directory and our summer camp calendar!)

Mary Becelia lives with her family in southern Stafford.