How To Find the Right Camp
When your child is ready for summer camp, where do you begin? With more than 12,000 camps in the U.S. alone, making the right choice can be as challenging as selecting a college. The good news is that with many excellent camps nationwide, there will be great choices for your child.
“Start by defining your preferences,” says Michael Chauveau, executive director of the American Camp Association (ACA) Keystone Section. “Involve children in the process. Visit camps and camp websites, watch videos and review brochures together. Allow children to ask the camp director questions. Listen to your child’s concerns. Choosing a camp together builds excitement and sends children positive messages.”
To learn about the camp’s philosophy and program strengths, Bob Lester, owner/director of Elbow Lane Day Camp in Warrington, PA, suggests parents first ask “What makes this camp unique?”
Then ask about staff hiring practices. “Without question, staff quality is the most significant factor in a successful outcome for a camper,” Lester says. “Some parents get stuck trying to compare camp facilities. Although the camp’s physical condition and cleanliness are critically important, a camp with extensive facilities can be lacking without a solid, experienced staff of mature individuals and a proven track record of a fun, safe program.”
Dan Zakrociemski, director of Summer Adventures Camp in Hockessin, DE, says, “Make sure you’ll get your money’s worth. Know what tuition includes and what activities are planned each day. Does the camp offer before and after-care? Is there an extra fee for field trips?”
Andy Yankowitz, owner/director of Tall Pines Day Camp in Williamstown, NJ, encourages parents to discuss the camp’s long-term plans for a child. “Many parents choose a camp as though it’s an annual decision. Children’s interests change over time, so a camp should have the ability to grow with children and offer them different things at different stages of their life, from preschool through middle school.
Campers should also have opportunities to grow into staff. The right camp can be a part of your child’s overall development from age 3 through their 20s. Can you envision your child growing up at the camp and developing into a young adult who may ultimately become a staff member?”
What kind of camp is right for your child? Here’s a checklist of factors to consider.
♦ Day or residential (overnight) camp? Children are often ready for overnight camp before parents are ready to “let go.” When parents are supportive, the great majority of children are successful at camp.
♦ Coed, all-girls, all-boys, or brother/sister camp? Both single-sex and coed camps offer social and developmental benefits in different ways.
♦ Traditional, specialty or special needs program? Ask about the camp’s philosophy and program
♦ Secular or faith-based camp? Faith-based camps vary widely in their approach to religious programming; be sure to find a good match for your family.
♦ Close to home, within driving distance or far away? Many camps provide bus service or will meet children at airports. Traveling may allow more choices for special skills or multicultural experiences.
♦ Highly structured or free-choice program? Learn what a typical day and week are like. Do children have electives? How often do they swim or go on field trips?
♦ More or less rustic? Camps reconnect kids with the natural world, but some are more outdoors-oriented than others. At overnight camps, facilities can range from tents and shower houses to cabins with private bathrooms.
♦ How long a stay? Sessions may range from 1 to 10 weeks. If your child will stay for a shorter session, consider a camp where all or most campers arrive and depart for sessions together; it can be hard to leave new friends behind.
♦ How much does it cost? Fees range from free at some nonprofit camps to more than $1,000 per week. Are meals or snacks and extra activities such as field trips or horseback riding included in the fee? Does the camp offer
financial aid or scholarships? Some camps allow parents to barter services such as marketing or general contracting in exchange for tuition. Other camps may offer flexible payment plans to help families fit camp into their budgets.
Once you know what kind of camp you’re looking for, use a variety of resources to find camps that meet your needs:
♦ Check the MetroKids Camp Guide.
♦ Use online search engines, such as the ACA’s Find-A-Camp at www.campparents.com.
♦ Visit area camp fairs.
♦ Ask family, friends, teachers, school counselors, clergy, camp consultants or your regional ACA office for camp references. Teachers often spend summers working as camp staff, so they may have recommendations.
Camp safety covers many areas, from staffing to sunburn. Lester is often asked about the counselors’ experience and maturity, and the camper to counselor ratio. “Parents also want to know if children will spend their time in direct sunlight, shaded areas or air conditioned buildings, and if we have a sunscreen policy,” says Lester.
“In this day and age, it’s important to ask about sign-in and sign-out procedures. Ask who is allowed to pick up your child,” Zakrociemski says.
Yankowitz says that food allergies have recently become more of a concern. “Ten percent of our campers are allergic to peanuts and other foods. We have become virtually peanut-free. Safety is no longer just about the pool or ropes course. Parents want to know that their children are safe with regard to every aspect of camp.”
Camps accredited by the ACA are inspected for more than 300 standards every three years. However, there may be good reasons why a camp is not ACA-accredited. Ask whether oversight is provided by another organization such as a municipal government or an educational association.
Visit the Camp
Although checking references with parents of enrolled campers may be helpful, Lester says that when considering a camp, there is no substitute for a personal visit.
A visit during the summer prior to your child’s enrollment, when you can view the program in action, is ideal. Lester cautions that in winter and early spring, inclement weather and soggy ground conditions may preclude getting a feel for the facilities, programs and the physical condition of the buildings and activity areas.
“No matter when you visit, it’s important to meet with the owner or director — the person who is directly responsible for the camp’s day to day operations,” Lester says. “Parents must have a comfort level with the personality, attitude and leadership style of the person who will be ultimately responsible for the welfare of their child.”
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.