Get a Jump on Your Child’s Summer Camp

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Now is the time to start planning your childs summer adventures.  Here are a few points to ponder as you start your search.

Before you know it, it’ll be time to pack the sunscreen, swimsuits and bug spray for summer camp. Last summer, an estimated 10 million U.S. kids went to summer camp, according to the American Camp Association (ACA).  But how do you pick the right camp for your child?  What about accreditation and safety issues?  With so many camps to choose from, where do you start?  Our experts suggest that you ask the following questions:

What activities does my child enjoy?

Summer camp is a great opportunity to focus on what your child likes and to strengthen his skills in those areas.  Soccer, art, the outdoors, dance, computers … There’s a camp for just about every interest, says Matt Clapp, founder and director of Rockin’ C Ranch (rockincranch.org), a summer camp on a working ranch in Lindale, Texas.  But also take the opportunity to broaden your child’s horizons and to help him develop a more well-rounded life, he adds.  “Maybe this is the year your city-bred kid could benefit from some time on a ranch.  Or maybe your small-town child would love to attend a camp for the arts in a larger city.”  Some colleges get kids psyched about science.  At Young Scientists’ Camp at California State University, Long Beach (http://www.youngscientistscamp.com), topics switch between physical science, earth/environmental science and biology in a three-year rotation, so returning campers always learn something new (and very cool – like building their own seismograph).

What are our expectations?

Decide what’s important to you before searching for a camp, suggests Michael Knauf, head of the Visual Arts department at French Woods (frenchwoods.com), a performing-arts camp in upstate New York.  What’s your budget?  How far away are you willing to send your child?  What environment do you prefer (traditional vs. specialty programs, rustic vs. luxury, large vs. small, religious affiliation, age focus, etc.)  “Decide these things up front and you can greatly reduce the number of camps to look at,” he says.

What summer-camp environment is right for my child with special needs?

Up to 15 percent of summer camps in the United States are now dedicated to meeting the special needs of campers with physical, emotional or mental challenges, according to the ACA.  Contact the ACA at 765-342-8456 to learn more and for list of camps.

Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association?

The ACA has accredited more than 2,400 camps across the United States.  (This is an independent organization and not a referral service.)  These camps must meet up to 300 standards for health, safety and program quality.  To find an ACA-accredited camp, visit acacamps.org.

Is the camp licensed by your state?

“Camp programs working with school-aged children are often required to be licensed by the state in which they operate,” says Betsy Strohmaier, director of Altogether Outdoors (mountaindaycamp.com) in Boulder, Colo.  “Childcare licensing mandates that a camp meets specific health-and-safety standards and works to keep parents well informed,” she adds.  If a camp is not licensed by your state, ask why.  And ask how the camp upholds state health and safety standards.

Does the camp communicate well with parents?

Pay attention to pre-camp contacts, suggests Silvana Clark, a former camp director and a professional speaker on parenting topics.  “The brochures may look great, but what kind of service do you get when contacting the camp?  If no one returns your calls or e-mails, or if the camp staff keeps saying ‘I don’t know about that,’ find another camp.”  Also, “a director should be seen and accessible when parents are dropping off and picking up,” says director Scottie Roach of Camp James Summer Day Camp (campjames.com) in Irvine, Ca.

What are the staffing ratios?

The ratio of staff to campers can tell you how much individual attention your child will receive at camp.  “Ask the camp director if their ratios include just counseling staff or if they also include support staff who don’t work directly with campers during the day,” Strohmaier suggests.  Ask what the normal group size is, and how many staff members supervise that group.  Finally, find out if these ratios improve during activities such as horseback riding, rock climbing, biking, etc.

What about safety and security issues?

“Make sure the camp you’re considering does background checks on all staff members,” suggests Emily Hadfield, camp-programs coordinator for Westminster College’s summer-camp program in Salt Lake City, Utah.  “And don’t be afraid to ask questions about safety, security or healthcare.”  For camps that offer activities such as swimming, boating  or diving, make sure all instructors are CPR-certified and that a life guard is on duty at all times, suggests Britt Michaelian, author of Secrets of the Safety Goddess:  A Modern Safety Guide for Busy Parents (Outskirts Press; $16.95).

How are camp counselors trained?

Most high-quality camps have a three- to five-day training program to give staff the skills they will need to help create a successful experience for your child, says Strohmaier.  Staff members should be trained in more than the technical skills of running a program, she adds.  They should learn the camp’s philosophy and practice listening to children and managing a group appropriately.  Specialized adventure counselors should take the lead in supervising safety, equipment and instruction for the more technical activities.  It’s important that these staff have advanced training in their specialty.

What if my child doesn’t know anyone at camp?

“Many parents show concern about sending their child to a camp without an existing friend,” says Roach.  That shouldn’t be a problem, our experts note, because camp counselors are trained to help kids get involved, feel like part of the group and make new friends.  “One of the great things about camp is that campers have the opportunity to connect socially while participating in activities,” adds Roach.

How can my child participate in selecting a camp?

Engage your child in the search, suggests Michaelian.  “Gather multiple brochures for different types of camps and read through them with your child, writing down the pros and cons of each camp, so you can make an educated choice together.”

By the way, Mom and Dad, don’t forget to have a great time yourselves, says Ben Cober of Cincinnati, Ohio, who grew up as a summer camper and then worked for five years at various camps and has seen his share of frazzled parents on drop-off and pick-up days.  “Let loose,” he says.  “Go to a movie!  Re-live your honeymooning days.  The rascals are out: Celebrate!”  J

Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist who frequently covers parenting topics.  Visit her blog at parenttalktoday.com.

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