School district camp. Math camp. Swim team. Reading program. Arts and crafts. Tutoring.

Summer options abound, and by this time each year, parents are bombarded with options.

But what's best for the child?

Summer programs can be used as ways to introduce children to new activities or enhance their interests.

The key, experts say, is to remember that summer programs are part of a child's overall development.

As executive director of the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence, it's Melanie McClintock's job to focus on those hours when children are out of school.

Though many afterschool and summer programs started as a place for children to be when school is not in session, the programs have "developed and evolved," she said.

"People in youth development - not just the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence - believe it's not just enough for you to send your child to a program where they are only going to be safe," she said. "They've taken on layers of complexity where now the programs and providers need to provide intentional programs. It's not enough to say, ‘Get out the balls and kick them around for recreation.' The intention is kids need physical activity."

McClintock continued: "If they're going to be doing art, they're not just painting ... to keep them busy for 30 minutes, but really the intention is using the paint for artistic expression."

One thing I try to do is use summer as a time when my kids can get involved in activities we can't fit in during the school year.

Two years ago, my son, now 8, spent a week in arts camp at the Mesa Arts Center and a month in a reading program. Last year, he built a robot with Mad Science.

This year, my son and daughter, now 6, will spend a week with Tempe's Childsplay where they'll get an introduction to acting.

I also feel strongly about staying physically active during summer - even when it's sweltering outside. And since we don't have a pool, we use our community swim teams as a chance to keep active and cool.

And yes, there will be plenty of family downtime when we take some time off from work.

Though my husband and I make the final decisions, we do give the kids some options - then we make the schedule. I weigh the costs and the drive time, as well as the perceived benefits.

Parents should remember, McClintock wrote in a recent column for Expect More Arizona, that quality youth programs - no matter what time of year - can lead to:

• Increased academic achievement in reading and math.

• Higher self-esteem.

• Improved school attendance.

• Higher levels of student engagement and motivation to learn.

• Increased likelihood of high school graduation.

• Reduced delinquency.

"A broad menu of activities in a nurturing, experiential learning environment gives children the opportunity to explore and sample a range of activities and subject areas to see what engages, interests and challenges them at the same time they're having fun," McClintock wrote.

So talk to your kids. Ask them what they would like to try. Interview programs. Chat with fellow parents.

The perfect program may be just around the corner.

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