Finding the perfect summer camp for your child can be an overwhelming task. You want her to have the ultimate camp experience. You want her to build self-confidence and make new friends. But most of all, you want her to have fun.
According to the American Camp Association (ACA), 10 million children attend camp each year and there are 12,000 day and resident camps across the United States alone. With so many camps to choose from, where do you begin?
First, a primer. There’s a dizzying array of camps available. Here’s a cheat sheet on some of the more popular options:
- Traditional camps offer a huge range in activities – everything from hiking and swimming to arts and crafts and general outdoors appreciation.
- Specialty camps have a narrower focus or an emphasis on a specific program such as music or tennis or adventure challenges.
- Trip camps allow the children to transport themselves to various locations by backpacking, hiking, riding, or canoeing.
- Travel camps take campers by bus or other transportation to different geographical places of interest.
- Family camps incorporate the entire family in the camp-going experience, allowing children who may not be ready to stay away from home a chance to experience camp with parents by their side.
- Special Needs camps focus on children with specific medical needs.
Troll the web. Ask friends for recommendations. Start sending away for those glossy brochures. Part of the fun of summer camp is the hunt. Once you and your child are on the same page, and you have a few contenders, it’s time to ask some questions. Here’s a start:
- What is the camp’s philosophy and program emphasis? Make sure you’re comfortable with how they do things.
- What is the camp director’s background? The ACA recommends a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, a completed in-service training within the past three years, and at least 16 weeks of camp administrative experience.
- What training do counselors receive? At minimum, camp staff should be trained in safety regulations, emergency procedures, behavior management, child abuse prevention, and appropriate staff/camper behavior.
- What is the camper-to-counselor ratio? ACA recommends one staffer for every six campers ages 7-8; one staffer for every eight campers ages 9-14; and one staffer for every 10 campers ages 15-17. At day camps, the ACA’s recommended ratios are one staff member for every eight campers ages 6-8; one staff member for every 10 campers ages 9-14; and one staff member for every 12 campers ages 15-17.
- What are the ages of the counselors? ACA recommends that 80 percent or more of the counseling/staff are at least 18 years old.
- What are the desired qualities in camp staff? Trustworthiness and dependability, ability to adapt to situations, a strong self-image, and an outgoing personality, among other qualities, are important characteristics.
- What percentage of the counselors returned from last year? Most camps have a 40 to 60 percent returning staff.
- How are behavioral and discipline problems handled? The disciplinary approach taken should be reasonable and well communicated.
- How does the camp handle special needs? Is there a nurse on staff? Are there special foods available?
How does the camp handle homesickness? Do they offer references? Is the camp accredited? You won’t know unless you ask. Have all your questions ready.
Once you and your child have narrowed down your choices, there’s another huge factor to consider: cost. The average cost of a residential or day camp ranges anywhere from $75 per week to more than $700 per week. Don’t immediately be turned off by price. There are many different types of financial assistance (including state and federal funds), and 90 percent of ACA camps offer some financial aid.
If you’re unsure whether or not your little guy is ready for the overnight plunge, consider a day camp. According to Peg L. Smith, CEO of the ACA, “Day camps offer all of the benefits of the camp experience, while serving as ‘training wheels’ for a residential experience.”
Don’t get too hung up on making the “perfect” decision. “Whether day or residential camp, every camp allows children the opportunity to play and just to be kids,” Smith says. And in our fast paced world, that’s reason enough to send them away for awhile.
For a comprehensive guide to camps, including a database of over 2,400 camps, visit www.campparents.org.