How to Pick a Summer Camp That's Right for Your Child
Start by talking with your child
You probably already have a pretty good idea of the activities that interest your child, but you might be surprised about a new interest. Ask your child what activities interest her. There are camps that target nearly every conceivable interest or special need, as well as "traditional" camps that offer a well-rounded curriculum.
Also, while the prospect of going to camp can be exciting, it's not uncommon for there to be some anxiety about the unknown. Ask your child if he has any particular concerns. Is your child worried about making friends, being able to get a chance to participate in a particular activity, being able to bunk with a friend, or being far from home? Asking the question is the first step in addressing the concern.
Several short conversations over time, perhaps at the dinner table, may be easier for your child. It will give her a chance to think about things and not try to process everything at once. These talks will give you a list to discuss with a director of the camps that interest you.
Research your options
If you have friends who attended a summer camp, you may wish to talk to them about their experience. Keep in mind, however, that even your child's best friend may have different interests or a different temperament, so go beyond just whether they liked the camp. Ask questions that will help answer the questions raised when you were talking to your child about his likes and concerns.
The Internet is also a rich source of information. In fact, it is so rich it can be overwhelming. Here are some suggestions for searching.
- Use a search engine
Think about how you want to search. Searching simply on "summer camps" will give you an unorganized list thousands of camps long. Searching by geographic area and activity are the two most common searches. Determine if your child wants to stay close to home, or if it even matters. If so, you can narrow your search by state, region or city. For example: "California summer camps," "Tri-state summer camps," or "Reno summer camps." Are you looking for a special activity? You can similarly narrow the scope of your search by activity, such as "mountain biking summer camps" or "rock climbing summer camps."
- Use a commercial directory
There are numerous commercial directories that provide listings of summer camps, often with good descriptions, photos and contact information. Some make it easier to narrow down your search by geographical area, activity, or by other factors. A partial list of such directories include CampPage.com, Adventure-Camps.com, goCamps.com, KidsCamps.com, AllensGuide.com, SummerCamps.com, and mySummerCamps.com. One thing to keep in mind is that for a camp to be included in most of these commercial directories they have to pay a fee. Therefore, the directories will not present as comprehensive of a list as simply using a search engine.
- Use a non-profit directory
There are various summer camp associations that publish directories of their member camps. Some of these directories also provide robust search capabilities. Here are just a few such directories: American Camp Association (ACAcamps.org), Association of Independent Camps (AICcamps.org), Western Association of Independent Camps (WAIC.org), Midwest Association of Independent Camps (CampsRUs.org), the Christian Camp and Conference Association (CCCA.org), and the Foundation for Jewish Camping (JewishCamping.org). Like commercial directories, they are not comprehensive. However, their narrower focus on camps that are accredited, that are in a particular region of the country, or that specialize on a particular interest may be just what you're looking for.
- Attend a camp fair
Many areas of the country have fairs at schools, shopping malls, and community centers that summer camps attend. This gives you a unique opportunity to talk to camp representatives face-to-face and ask questions. You'll obviously get an even more limited set of camps, but it may be beneficial if there's a camp in which you're interested and you want to meet them, or if you're trying to narrow down the type of camp that interests you and your child. Call one of the non-profit associations or your local recreation department to find out if there's a camp fair coming up near you. (They usually run from January to May.)
- Use a consultant
That's right; there are actually people who will try to match your interests and budget to a summer camp they represent. They are also called "referral services." The camps pay the consultant's fee much the way airlines use to pay a commission to travel agents. Camps must agree to pay the consultant's fees in order to be recommended and so like directories do not offer a comprehensive list of summer camps. Examples of some referral services you may wish to consider include Student Camp & Trip Advisors (CampAdvisors.com), Tips on Trips and Camps (TipsOnTripsAndCamps.com), and The Camp Experts (CampExperts.com).
The bottom line: if you want the most comprehensive list of summer camps from which to choose and have the time and inclination, use a search engine. If you're not so concerned about selecting from a comprehensive list and could benefit from some organizational/search help, consider a directory or consultant. In particular, a consultant may be helpful if you don't have the time or inclination to do the research. Lastly, attending a camp fair may be helpful if you want to meet representatives from a camp that interests you, or if you're still in the beginning stages of looking for a camp and want to consider many different types of summer camps.
- Consider narrowing your search to accredited summer camps
It takes a great deal of faith for you, as the parent, to entrust your child to others. You want to make sure your child not only has a rewarding experience but is safe.
There is no regulation of summer camps at the federal or national level. Typically, it is up to each state to establish the laws and regulations that govern how a summer camp must operate. In California, for example, the health department for the county in which a summer camp is located implements the state law. A health inspector will make an unannounced visit to the camp at some point in the summer to check for such things as the sanitary condition of the kitchen, proper record keeping in the health center, the presence of emergency plans, and proper pool operation, among other things.
The American Camp Association (ACA), which is a non-governmental, non-profit association of camps, has established an extensive list of guidelines that goes much further than most states' laws. There are more than 300 standards in areas such as staff screening, training, and certifications, emergency preparation, health and safety, guidelines for how activities are conducted such as staff to camper ratios, camper orientation, and first aid training, transportation procedures, food handling and preparation, and facilities design and operation. These guidelines have been recognized as best practices for running a camp. In fact, as of the time of this writing, California is in the process of codifying many of the ACA guidelines into law.
While there is nothing to prevent a non-accredited camp from following the guidelines established by the ACA, accreditation is your best evidence that the summer camp has gone through the rigorous planning and operational execution so that your child will not only have a fun time, but a safe summer as well.
- Talk to the camp director
Call the director of the summer camps that have made your cut so far. Here are 10 questions to ask him or her:
- How long has the camp been in operation?
- Is the camp accredited? (If the camp is not accredited, you may wish to ask many more questions about camp operations. See ACA's web site for the basics of accreditation.)
- What is the camp's operating philosophy; what, if any, goals does it have for its campers?
- Any questions raised when you were talking to your child.
- To walk you through a typical day at camp, from the time a camper wakes up in the morning until he goes to sleep at night.
- How activity periods are organized and scheduled; what activities are offered; how your child signs up for activities.
- What are the sleeping arrangements? How many children are in a bunk group? Do counselors sleep in the same cabin/room/tent/tipi?
- How do meals work? Are they served "family style" (children eat with their bunk group with food brought to the table) or cafeteria style (children get their own food and sit in no particular group)?
- What are the bathing arrangements?
- What's your policy on parents and children communicating during camp? Do you allow phone calls? Email? Faxes? Visits?
And if you have any more questions, fire away. It's your child you're talking about after all.
Armed with answers to these questions, you'll be able to make an informed decision. Plus, you'll also be able to let your child know what to expect to help reduce any anxiety she may have about the unknown.
Sign up and get excited!
Fun activities, caring staff, and an unparalleled opportunity to learn and grow await your child. We trust you'll find the perfect summer camp for your child!