by Linda Crisalli
There are a multitude of summer camp experiences available in most cities for children of all ages from preschool on up. Many camps are thematic and offer your child the opportunity to explore a particular subject in depth. Many if not most summer camps include field trips. They all sound like great fun. But as anyone who is parenting children knows, they’re not all equally appropriate for your child.
Of course you want your child to have a wonderful time at camp, and asking the right questions will go a long way to make sure it will be the best possible experience. It is definitely worth your time to gather more information than is generally included in camp brochures. Here’s a thorough checklist of questions to ask.
1. What are the camp's philosophy and program emphasis? The American Camping Association (ACA) recommends that this be the first question you ask, since “each camp has its own method of constructing programs based on its philosophy.” Do the camp’s philosophy and personality complement your family’s values? A good camp director should be able to talk clearly about the camp’s style.
2. What kind of education, training and experience does the camp director have? This is the individual who is responsible for supervising the staff, monitoring the program and supervising the staff. You want someone who has a strong background and takes the job seriously. The ACA recommends that directors possess a bachelor's degree, have completed in-service training within the past three years, and have had at least 16 weeks of camp administrative experience before having become director.
3. How old are the camp counselors, what are the general requirements to be one, what kind of training does the organization require, and how much supervision do they get? This varies greatly from one camp to another. You want counselors that have more background than just babysitting or coming from a large family, and they also need baseline training.
4. Does the organization require criminal background clearance of every employee? This is important. Bad things don’t happen much and they don’t happen often, but they do happen. You want to verify that the organization does indeed call references and obtain criminal history clearance for any employee or volunteer who has access to the children.
5. What is the adult-to-child ratio of the camp? There should be enough adults to supervise the children properly and to keep everyone safe. If the program is a licensed childcare program, then the facility is required to maintain minimum adult-to-child ratios (determined by the ages of the children) at all times.
6. What are the policies around supporting a child who is homesick or frightened? What are the policies about a child calling home? Can a child choose not to participate in an activity? Even the most confident child can get homesick. And there are all kinds of legitimate reasons why a child might prefer not to participate in a particular activity. There should be enough staff, and they should be empathetic enough to allow for these contingencies.
7. Does the organization have specific discipline policies, and what kind of back-up support is available if one or more children act out? And what are the policies about contacting parents if their children are involved in an altercation? As is the case in school, there are often one or more children in a group with challenging behavior. There should be a written discipline policy. All staff should have training about how to de-escalate volatile behavior.
8. What kind of safety precautions are in place? Are children required to wear personal protective equipment for the various activities, such as helmets, elbow and knee pads, life jackets, harnesses, goggles, etc.?
9. What kind of emergency medical support is available? Is there a nurse on staff? Do employees have current first aid and CPR training? Are first aid kits and defibrillators readily available? Is there an emergency medical facility nearby?
10. What kinds of meals and snacks are served? Are there alternative selections for children with specific allergies or food preferences? Are campers allowed to bring food from home?
11. How does the camp handle special needs? What provisions and facilities are available for children with special requirements? Is there a designated place to store insulin or allergy medicine? What are the policies about Epi-pens, asthma inhalers, diabetic equipment and medications, Ritalin, etc.?
12. What kind of transportation and safety precautions are used for field trips? Does anyone prescreen field trip destinations to verify that they are appropriate? What kinds of vehicles are used, are they properly insured, are they in good condition, are they equipped with seatbelts? What kind of training have the drivers had? If they are driving 12-15 passenger vans or buses, do they have the appropriate licenses? If private vehicles are used, are the drivers insured and do their cars have seat belts and booster seats (if applicable)?
13. Is the camp accredited by the ACA? If not, why? The ACA has extensive requirements for camps to gain accreditation. More than 5,000 of the nation's 8,500 day camps and sleep-away resident camps have met up to 300 health and safety standards to become ACA-accredited.
14. What about references? Ask for the names of former campers and their families you can contact for references, and be sure to contact them. Also ask if you can visit the camp beforehand.
Start your research now
Getting the answers t these questions is work, but it will pay off for you and your camper. So be sure you add camp research to your parenting children “to do” list in plenty of time. January is ideal, because camps tend to fill up very quickly. Call the organization and ask when registration opens and what information you will need to enroll your child. If camp during school and summer breaks also serves your childcare needs, it is especially important to get your child in before they fill!
Linda Crisalli has extensive education, training and more than 40 years experience working with and on behalf of children and their families. Currently she is working as a trainer, coach, consultant, and writer near Seattle, Washington.