B efore you know it, it’ll be time to pack the sunscreen, swimsuits, and bug spray for summer camp. Last year, an estimated 10 million U.S. kids attended summer camp, according to the American Camp Association (ACA). But how do you pick the right camp for your child? What about accreditation and safety issues? With so many camps to choose from, where do you start? Our experts suggest that you ask the following questions:
What activities does my child enjoy?
Summer camp is a great opportunity to focus on what your child likes and to strengthen her skills in those areas. Soccer, art, the outdoors, dance, computers — there’s a camp for just about every interest. But why not take the opportunity to broaden your child’s horizons by giving her time on a horse ranch or a workshop at art school. Memphis College of Art offers a fun summer program where kids learn everything from sculpture to photography.
What are my — and my child’s — expectations?
Decide what’s important to you before searching for a camp. What’s your budget? How far away are you willing to send your child? What environment do you prefer (traditional vs specialty programs, rustic vs luxury, large vs small, religious affiliation, age focus, etc.) Decide these things up front and you’ll greatly reduce the number of camps to look at.
What summer-camp environment is right for my child with special needs?
Up to 15 percent of summer camps in the U.S. are now dedicated to meeting the special needs of campers with physical, emotional or mental challenges, and many serve families here in the Mid-South. Memphis Parent runs a listing in the April camp issue.
Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association?
The ACA has accredited more than 2,400 camps across the U.S. (This is an independent organization and not a referral service.) These camps must meet up to 300 standards for health, safety and program quality. To find an ACA-accredited camp, visit acacamps.org.
Does the camp communicate well with parents?
Pay attention to pre-camp contacts, suggests Silvana Clark, a former camp director and a professional speaker on parenting topics. “The brochures may look great, but what kind of service do you get when contacting the camp? If no one returns your calls or e-mails, or if the camp staff keeps saying, ‘I don’t know about that,’ find another camp.”
What are the staffing ratios?
The ratio of staff to campers can tell you how much individual attention your child will receive at camp. Ask the camp director if their ratios include just counseling staff or if they also include support staff who don’t work directly with campers during the day.
What about safety and security issues?
“Make sure the camp you’re considering does background checks on all staff members,” suggests Emily Hadfield, camp-programs coordinator for Westminster College’s summer-camp program in Salt Lake City, Utah. “And don’t be afraid to ask questions about safety, security or healthcare.” For camps that offer activities such as swimming, boating, or diving, make sure all instructors are CPR-certified and that a lifeguard is on duty at all times.
How are camp counselors trained?
Most high-quality camps have a three-to-five-day training program to give staff the skills they will need to help create a successful experience for your child, say the experts. Staff members should also be trained in more than the technical skills of running a program. They should learn the camp’s philosophy and practice listening to children and managing a group appropriately. Specialized adventure counselors should take the lead in supervising safety, equipment, and instruction for the more technical activities.
What if my child doesn’t know anyone at camp?
That shouldn’t be a problem, our experts note, because camp counselors are trained to help kids get involved and help them make new friends. One of the great things about camp is that campers have the opportunity to connect socially while participating in activities.
How can my child participate in selecting a camp?
Engage your child in the search by reading about different types of camps, writing down the pros and cons, and making a choice together.
By the way, Mom and Dad, don’t forget to have a great time yourselves, says Ben Cober of Cincinnati, Ohio, who grew up as a summer camper and then worked for five years at various camps. (Yep, he’s seen his share of frazzled parents on drop-off and pick-up days.) “Let loose,” he says. “Go to Cancun! Relive your honeymooning days,” says Cober. “The rascals are out: Celebrate!”
Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist who covers parenting topics. She and her husband like to sneak off for quick-but-romantic local trips when their son is at summer camp. Visit her blog at parenttalktoday.com.