Connie Sanders Emerson has a pile of summer camp printouts stacked 2 inches high next to the laptop on her kitchen island.
Her two children, Sophie, 11, and Mack, 9, will attend a total of 12 different day camps this summer, from the Sacramento Zoo's camp to a sailing program at Sacramento State Aquatic Center.
Emerson starts planning for summer early, when 50 degree spring days are still the norm.
But the copious planning, sorting and charting is worthwhile. Camps do more than just fill idle summer hours they help Sophie and Mack improve their sports technique, care for animals, learn new hobbies.
Summer camps also teach the siblings some invaluable skills, like how to quickly make friends.
"They learn some independence because they're away from their school environment," she said. "The social skills they learn I'm totally in favor of that."
Sophie likes that the camp instructors are high school or college-age youths, "and more fun than teachers and parents can be," Emerson said. Mack loves the sports camps he attends at Sacramento State and the skills he's developed.
Many parents and their kids have found that summer camp is more than just a chance to sleep in a teepee and hear scary ghost stories by a fire. It's a chance to connect with nature, experience life through a different lens. It's a chance to learn lessons to last a lifetime.
Jim Hurley is 55 but vividly remembers the summer of 1964, his first year at Camp Noel Porter, where he has since sent his own children.
Hurley was 9 years old that first summer at the Episcopal church camp in Tahoe City. The camp session had two priests that year, the Rev. Bill Burrill of Davis and the Rev. Bob Noble of Redding. Burrill was about 5-foot-5 and Noble was more than 6 feet tall.
"But when they played volleyball, it was as if they couldn't lose," Hurley wrote in an email.
Burrill could set up shots from anywhere on the court. Noble would stand by the net and spike everything Burrill sent his way.
"I was small as a child, typically the smallest boy in the group anywhere I went. Father Burrill, using his quickness and low center of gravity to play magnificent volleyball, taught me that being short was not always a disadvantage," Hurley said.
Lessons like these abound in camp settings. Children and teenagers learn how to make decisions independent of their parents, how to work with people they don't know and get an opportunity to enhance their social skills, said Andrew Townsend, campdirector of Kennolyn Camps in the Santa Cruz mountains.
"The reality is kids today spend a lot of time not interacting face to face," he said. "But when you put kids in a setting where they don't have that technology, it's amazing to see how talented they really are with a good nurturing adult or two making sure no one gets left out at learning how to go up to someone and introduce themselves. These social skills are fantastic at camp and lacking in many parts of their life now."
To ensure that your child or teen will gain those invaluable lessons, you have to choose a camp that your child will enjoy. In other words, pick the camp that's right for your kid.
"Take a moment to recognize who your kid is and what you want to get out of the camping experience," Townsend advised. "Have a family discussion about what you're looking for."
Poll parents at school or work for their recommendations (and check out the recommendations from parents in the box at right). Explore sites such as the American Camp Association Northern California's website www.acanorcal.org where you can customize your search for an accredited camp based on location, activities, cultural focus, cost and length of session.
Extensive Internet searching is how Chris and Jon Robinette found Mountain Camp, a picturesque sleepaway camp on Ice House Lake in the El Dorado National Forest.
Their daughters Katie, 13, and Dani, 9, are returning this summer for their third and second years, respectively. They picked Mountain Camp for its outdoor adventure focus.
"We aren't a camping family, so I wanted them to have that experience of being outdoors and swimming in lakes and checking out the stars at night," Chris Robinette said.
Robinette likes that her daughters are learning water sports and interacting with counselors from around the globe. But she also loves that her daughters are gaining other invaluable lessons.
"They learn a lot about teamwork and group dynamics and how to get along with other people," she said.
As for the girls, they've learned some important lessons too.
"Try to not go to the bathroom in the middle of the night," said Dani.
OK, how about the second-best lesson?
"Well you learn how to climb big heights, canoe, how to fish," she said. "And they teach you basic life skills and making new friends and stuff."
Katie has made friends at summer camp that she stays in touch with all year through Facebook.
"You get to make a bond with people," she said. "(Camp) is a great experience. In team exercises, I have to learn to be patient with others and work with others and really be part of a team."
Stacy Diamond of Gold River has sent her daughter to Camp Eagle Ridge, a leadership camp in Wisconsin's Northwoods every summer since she was 9 years old. Diamond is from Wisconsin and Minnesota, so she thought the opportunity would be a good experience for her daughter.
"She has never in her seven years this coming summer mentioned anything I thought she might think of negatively, based on her California upbringing not even the Northwoods mosquitoes," Diamond wrote in an email. "To say she loves camp doesn't even come close to describing what the camp experience has meant to her."
This summer, at 15, Diamond's daughter will attend camp for six weeks.
"It's the very best gift you can give your child," Diamond said. "It will literally make them a better, stronger, more self-confident individual all while having fun."
And just think of the stories they'll regale you with when they come home in a haze of dirt and mosquito bites.