The National Camp Association reports more than six million children attended camp during the summer of 2009. With camp programs in such high demand, it is important to start the enrollment process early so you can secure a slot at not just any camp, but the camp that is right for your child. With more than 1,000 summer camps in Connecticut alone, the question is, how do you choose a camp?
The Selection Process
The first step in camp selection and screening is sitting down as a family and determining what type of camp is suited to your child’s interest and needs. From identifying their interests to outlining the experiences they hope to have, a solid understanding of your family’s goals for the camp experience is an asset to the screening process. During the family meeting, make a list of your needs and wants in a camp program.
As you are building your list of needs and wants, be sure to think about what type of person your child is. Do they perform best in a relaxed or more structured environment? Are they more comfortable around small or large groups of their peers? Are they cautious or adventurous? Acknowledging these personality traits will help you to choose a camp at which your child will both feel comfortable and thrive. When faced with a choice between two camps with very similar programs, the nuances which best accommodate your child’s personality traits can be the deciding factors.
A Lesson in History
When screening a camp, ask about its history. How long has it been in operation? What changes and improvements have been made since opening? What are its goals, policies and philosophies? This history lesson will teach you a lot about the program, why it was established and what steps it takes to ensure that children have a positive experience.
It can be beneficial to ask if there are any past parents that you can speak with. Another parent’s perspective on the program can bring to the table information that you may not have otherwise asked about. It can also demonstrate whether or not campers are really having the types of experiences that the camp is hoping to provide them with.
It is important to know who will be caring for your child during their camp experience. From the counselors’ education levels and training, to the methods by which they were screened, it is imperative to know who is working with your child. Asking simple questions, such as, “What percentage of your counselors are returning?” can tell you a lot about the camp and how both staff and campers are treated. While it may seem awkward at the time, inquiring about the type of background check that is performed on all camp staff is a critical step in ensuring your child’s safety. The better educated you are about the staff at the camp your child attends, the more at-ease you will feel, and in-turn, the better equipped you will be to help your child feel safe while at camp.
Choosing the right day camp can be challenging enough, but if you have decided to send your child to an overnight camp, the selection process comes with its own set of challenges. Before deciding where to send your child, it is critical to determine if they are ready for the experience. If you have determined that your child is ready for the experience, begin by making a list of overnight camps that offer the type of program that you and your child would be interested in. Criteria for building this list may include distance from home, types of activities offered and duration of program. With a list compiled, contact each camp to learn about where the children sleep and the type of supervision that is offered. Also consider campers proximity to toilets, sinks and showers during the night. As a precautionary measure, ask about the camp’s policies on visitation and calls from home, in the event that your child experiences separation anxiety.
Questions for Campers with Special Needs
For parents of children with special needs, selecting the right camp can be an arduous process. From ensuring that your child’s needs will be met to preparing them to handle, and hopefully enjoy, the experience, there is a lot to consider. To make the evaluation process more manageable, begin by asking the camp if they are accustomed to serving children with such needs. Learning about the camp’s experience with handling behaviorally, emotionally or physically challenged children can make a strong case as to whether or not the camp is right for your child. It is also important to remember that a camp can only accommodate your child’s special needs if they know about them. Assert yourself during the screening process to be certain that the camp understands all of the needs they will have to meet if your child comes to their camp.
Medical Care... Just in case
Medical policies vary widely amongst camps. For children who take medication daily (and during the hours which they are at camp) the first thing to ask is whether or not the camp will administer medication. Since not all camps will answer ‘yes’ to this question, it is a must-ask for parents.
It is also important to learn if the camp’s staff is trained in First Aid and CPR, as well as their policies for handling minor medical needs and emergencies. Learning if the camp has a doctor or nurse on staff or on call can help to answer these questions.
For parents of children with allergies, it is important to probe even deeper when evaluating the camp. Asking about the proximity of treatment to your child as well as the precautions the camp takes on behalf of children with allergies, can help you to evaluate the safety of the camp for your child.
Soccer Camp, Space Camp and other one-of-a-kind programs
When choosing a specialty camp for your child, there are many unique criteria to evaluate. Among these criteria are the required skills that campers must possess, and equipment or supplies that you will need to purchase for the program.
If your child will need to audition for a space in the program, it is important to learn what credentials will be evaluated before applying. There is no sense in having a first year baseball player apply to camp that only accepts children who have four years of experience. It will only lead to unnecessary disappointment and frustration for your child.
Since specialty camps are an investment in your child’s interests, be certain that they remain interested in the sport, art or other activity before enrolling them in the program. Two weeks at band camp can be miserable for a child who no longer enjoys band.
Talking about Money
Camp enrollment costs vary widely based on the type of program. The American Camp Association reports that camp enrollment fees average between $75 and $400 per week, while there are specialty camps which cost thousands of dollars per week. Before enrolling your child, be sure to ask about any additional fees that you may incur, so that you can have a full understanding of your financial commitment. If you find a program that you think would be a great fit for your child but are weary of the fees, ask if financial aid is available from the camp. As an added precaution, be sure to ask about the camp’s refund policy – a lot can change between the time you enroll your child and the day that camp begins.
When evaluating a summer camp, it is important to remember that there is no such thing as asking too many questions. The better educated you become about the camp, the greater likelihood there is that you will choose a program that your child will enjoy.
Sherri Sutera is senior vice president of child care services for 2-1-1, a nonprofit organization providing free, multilingual referrals to camp, preschool and other child care programs throughout Connecticut. To connect with one of its child care specialists, dial 2-1-1.