By Sandra Gordon
Open spots at summer camps can go faster than a popsicle melts on a sweltering day. Still, for your child’s wellbeing and your own, it pays to get picky and do your homework.
Before taking summer camp virtual tours, “know what you want,” says camp director, Sam Doescher, who runs a day and resident camp for boys and girls ages 8 to 17. Ask your child what he or she is looking for in a summer camp. What do you want from that camp experience for your child? What about location: Do you like more woodsy, beachy or lake-type surroundings?
Of course, cost can be a major deciding factor. But beyond that, we asked camp directors for their top questions to ask that can help you know when you’ve found the right summer camp for your child—or if you need to keep looking.
What will my child do there? Many camps will say they offer something for everyone—from basketball, theater activities, music, sports, horseback riding, archery, robotics, rock climbing, arts and crafts, or water sports. Still, to narrow your camp selection, determine the camp’s main activities. At camp director Sam Doescher’s program, for example, “you might love archery, but if you hate the water, you might not have the best time because you’re in the water every day learning to fish, water ski, knee board, wake board or sail. Archery is just a small portion of our program,” Doescher says.
Is the camp accredited? American Camp Association (ACA) accreditation signals that a camp has met or exceeds all state camp requirements. ACA requirements mandate staff to camper ratios of 1 to 8 for 6- to 8-year-olds and younger. ACA accreditation requires documented background checks, and certifications. “When you add that layer of documentation, there’s a lot more work involved. If camp is going to go through that legwork, they want to make sure they have a topnotch camp,” Doescher says.
Does the camp have a philosophy? The answer to this question can help you get a sense of the camp’s overall mission. Traditional summer camps can provide the opportunity to build friendships, foster a sense of independence that can serve your child well now and later, develop social skills, try new things, and learn how to fail in a safe and structured environment. “Our philosophy is we provide campers a noncompetitive environment with which they can grow and enjoy their camp experience,” Doescher says.
Other camps may have an even more specific mission. Camp Champions on the banks of Lake LBJ in Marble Falls, Texas, for example, focuses on helping campers learn the “four Rs”: respect, responsibility, taking reasonable risk and reaching out to other campers to help and encourage each other throughout daily camp activities. For example, Camp Champion campers must make their bed every day, take out the trash in their cabin (there’s a daily inspection), and get out of their comfort zone by taking reasonable risks, such as working up to the mountain lion–the highest point on the camp’s massive climbing wall. “We also use fun as the delivery mechanism to teach critical thinking, creativity, leadership skills, confidence and communication,” says counselor, John Bailey. “Counselors have meaningful conversations.”
Does the camp have many returning campers? A decent retention rate—of at least 50 percent—signals that campers are satisfied enough to want to come back. Ideally, the camper retention rate should be 60 to 70 percent, Doescher says. Ask about returning counselors, too. Again, a decent camp counselor retention rate should be 50 percent or greater.
What qualifications do the counselors have? At the best camps, “all counselors should have to undergo a background check, be vetted through the national sex offender database and have been trained to report any sort of sexual abuse,” Doescher says. From a water safety perspective, at least 75 percent of the staff should be lifeguard and CPR certified if your child will be spending any time in the water. Ideally, senior counselors should be high school graduates and above; head counselors should be graduating college seniors, college graduates or graduate students.
How does the camp handle meals? If you have a picky eater, be sure the camp has plenty of meal-time options, as in buffet-style meals, a variety of food stations or cereal always available. If food allergy is a concern, ask about the camp’s food allergy policy and practices, such as how far the PB and J station is from the nut-free table in the camp cafeteria.
For food in general, review the camp’s sample online menus and check out the camp’s food philosophy. Some camps will feature only fresh ingredients, from-scratch cooking, or “healthy” foods. At other camps, not so much. At Sam Doescher’s camp, for example, “we won’t be serving spinach,” he says. “We want to give our campers a well-balanced diet, but our food is not the healthiest because healthier foods can be harder to get campers to eat. We want to make sure our campers eat and get that fuel so they can enjoy all the activities.”
What do campers do on rainy days? Most camps will probably list ten or so special planned activities for bad-weather days, particularly if the camp is located where it might often rain. But you also want to listen for indoor facility options, such as a gym and a recreation hall. Sitting under a tree in the rain playing UNO may build character, but rainy-day activities, such as skits, arts and crafts and games are just more comfortable inside.
What happens if my child gets sick or injured? Ideally, a nurse should be onsite from early morning until bedtime, then on-call through the night, with counselors trained to dispense medications and first aid as backups. If your child has asthma, your child can be expected to bring two epi pens and inhalers: one to be stored in a locked cabinet in the nurse’s station and the other to be carried around with your child, depending on your child’s asthma condition. Other medications will likely be locked and stored in the nurse’s station and dispensed by the nurse or a trained counselor each day.
Will my child be allowed to bring a phone? The answer to that can vary depending on the camp’s policy. It’s up to you to decide how off the grid you’d like your child to be. At some camps, no electronics are allowed, including in camper cabins. “Campers are just in there to sleep,” says camp counselor Bailey. At other camps, campers can use the camp’s computers at the facility but not their phones.
What does this camp offer others do not? Many camps now offer trendy features, such as a GaGa pit, a water mat, an indoor arcade, and robotics classes. But innovative camps will offer something extra special–a signature activity that campers will hopefully come to associate with the camp years later. At Doescher’s camp, it’s learning to roll logs in the water.
At counselor John Bailey’s camp, the secret sauce is counselors from all over the world and a diverse community of campers. “Campers can find friends here, where in real life their paths would have never crossed,” Bailey says. It is all in support of the camp’s big-picture goal: For campers to grow into true champions in life–to pursue big dreams and make a difference in the world around them, he says.
Sandra Gordon is an award-winning freelance writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting, travel and consumer issues.