Kids need to go to camp. They learn independence, coping skills, how to manage collective living, and how to appreciate the gifts and challenges that other people bring to them. It’s good for them to know they can survive without their family, and that they can make it on their own – with help from caring camp staff, of course! Camp affords them the opportunity to learn new skills in new environments, and these experiences may last them a lifetime. We want for them to have positive, happy memories of these days.
I researched camps in my book, How To Keep Your Children Safe (University Press of New England) and have these recommendations for parents to help them to choose a camp:
Identify what your child needs from a camp experience. There are many different types of camps to choose from. These include day camps, sleepover camps, sports camps, wilderness camps, health camps, art camps, therapy camps, academic camps, religious camps, community service camps, international experience camps, etc. What does your child need physically, emotionally, socially, and intellectually? How long is the right amount of time to be away from home? Younger children may need shorter time periods away than older youth who may benefit from longer camp adventures.
Identify what you, the parent, needs from camp. Camp is a big deal for parents too. Do you need camp as day care since you have to work and want the kids involved in structured activity? Do you ache at the thought of your kids being away from you for an extended period of time? Or do you view camp as an opportunity for a little personal respite? Knowing your agenda behind camp is important.
Do your research and select the right camp for the right kid. Goodness of fit is essential to a positive camp experience. Sometimes parents opt for the most convenient camp, which may not always be the best for one’s child. The American Camping Association (ACA) (www.acacamps.org) has a detailed list of them by type and location. The ACA camps must meet a long set of standards in order to gain their accreditation and are usually safer bets than other ones.
Check out the camp. It may be one thing to buy a sweater on-line just by looking at a picture and reading a description, but it’s entirely different thing when shopping for your kid’s camp. One camp director told me how stunned she was that some parents would simply fill out the online application and send their darlings and lots of money far away to camp without ever visiting the camp or calling the camp to talk to the staff.
Analyze the cost-benefit. What is your child going to get from the camp, really? How competent is the staff? How are they trained? What is the staff-to-camper ratio? What percent of campers and staff return? Sometimes camps don’t cost much – and the kids don’t get much. Other camps may cost more but the staff competence, safety and programs make them worth it. Be careful for predatory camps that have lots of glitz and provide little in return.
How are health issues addressed? You want to make sure kids are safe. Is there a doctor or nurse on camp premises? How many staff members are certified in CPR and First Aid? What are the safety practices, especially around water, hiking, or other physically challenging or risky behaviors? Kids may get everything from bug bites to broken arms, and it’s smart to know ahead of time how competently problems will be managed. Some children have physical, cognitive, emotional or behavioral issues that will need to be managed, and good conversation between parent and camp directors need to occur ahead of time. Realistically, the camp may not be equipped to deal with the problems of certain types of campers. Some camp counselors are just a smidge older than the campers and may not have the maturity or training to deal with some campers. Homesickness is predictable, and kids may have emotional issues that have to be addressed. So knowing camp health practices is wise.
How does the camp handle discipline? Sometimes even the best behaved child loses it. You may want the disciplinary practices of the camp to mirror your own. Private camps that are not ACA accredited may use disciplinary practices you don’t like. Therapy camps sometimes engage in practices that one may find questionable. So ask!
If parents do their homework, chances are their children will remember their camp days with laughter and joy, not trembling and upset. There is never 100% guarantee of how things will turn out, but savvy parents can increase the chances their children will have the time of their life!