Cincinnati Family Magazine

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May 27, 2024

Mom’s Guide for First Time Day Campers

For local mom Amy Mund, sending her son to a day camp at Cincinnati Nature Center was an obvious choice, since she is a member of the staff. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have her concerns.

   “My biggest concern was that my son, who had just turned 7 at the time, was in a camp that had 7- to 13-year-olds.” That seems like a pretty big age gap, but after speaking with Director Eve Smallwood, she was assured that the camps were broken into age groups so that her son would spend his day with kids closer to his age. “It worked out great,” says Mund. “He had a great time and we were both really happy with his experience.”


How To Start?

Greater Cincinnati is home to a plethora of day camp options for families who aren’t yet ready for the overnight experience, or are looking for a first-time intro to all of the available summer adventures. So how to choose? Start with getting some from your child! Consider his age, interests and abilities – is he an avid artist, an athlete looking to develop his skills, or would he like to just play fun games in the outdoors?

   Mom Anne Horne says, “With so many camps available, on all kinds of topics, I began by asking my child what they would like to do or learn more about (swimming, nature, art, etc.). This helped me narrow my search both online and when I spoke to other parents.”

   Which brings us to another important resource – fellow parents. Horne says she always tries to connect with a family that has done a camp before to hear about their experiences. Those two sources are what led her to also choose the Cincinnati Nature Center for her children, where she found a “nice balance of adventure and learning.”

   You might find other factors influencing your decision – you may want to send your child to the same camp as his best friend, or give him a chance to make new friends. Or, you might find it convenient to find a camp that allows for carpooling with other parents in your circle. And sometimes, a little prior knowledge can go a long way. Alyce Ellison based her choice of Camp at the J at the Mayerson JCC based on conversations with other parents, but it helped that her daughter already enjoyed her swimming lessons at the center, and that her husband had good memories of attending the camp when he was growing up.  


When to Start?

When researching programs, it’s crucial to pay attention to deadlines. Cincinnati Nature Center’s camp enrollment opens at 10 a.m. on Feb. 6, and Smallwood says that spots go fast. (She suggests you create or update your camp registration account ahead of time so you are ready to go when enrollment opens.)

   At Camp at the J, campers are accepted until capacity is reached, but Director Judith Rapport recommends parents register early, as spots here also fill quickly.

   Over at Great Parks of Hamilton County, which offers several camps this summer at both Sharon Woods and Parky’s Farm and where kid will enjoy crafts, games, gardening, hiking, and meeting live local wildlife, Early Bird pricing ends on Feb. 28, according to Regional Education Manager Julie Robinson.


Getting What You Need To Know

So you’ve narrowed in on a few programs, and now you need to get specific. This is the time to ask camp directors for details like what a typical day will look like for your child, what happens if he isn’t enjoying himself or doesn’t seem to be making friends, the counselors’ experience, and the dreaded question of what happens in an emergency. The good news is that camps think about these things all year long, so they are well prepared.

   “At Camp at the J, we believe in strong welcomes,” says Rapport. “At the beginning of each session, we make sure everyone meets each other so that we can start to form a community. All of camp gathers near the flagpole every morning to sing songs and get excited for the day.” That day will be filled with loads of activities – everything from music classes to games to exploring nature, along with daily swimming in either the indoor or outdoor pools. Counselors are trained to get to know each camper, so that if a child doesn’t seem to be joining in, they can easily take note when something might be wrong.

   “We want every camper to feel like they had a great day, and that they are liked and appreciated, so we make sure that our staff is aware of what’s happening each day so that they can watch for any signs of problems and work to resolve them right away,” says Rapport.

   Robinson at Great Parks says it’s not that kids aren’t having fun, but are nervous about being separated from their parents or not knowing anyone. “Each camp starts with ‘getting to know you games’ and counselors will focus more attention on kids at the beginning of a camp that seem to be going through separation anxiety. If you start talking to a child one-on-one as you introduce them to a craft or live animal, many times the parents can leave quicker than they originally think,” she says.

   And you don’t have to worry about kids feeling left out at CincyNature Camps either. Says Smallwood, “One of the things we value most at camp is making sure each camper feels included and is part of the team. CincyNature Camp counselors and teen Leaders-in-Training enjoy getting to know each camper in their group and finding out what their interests are. Learning these interests helps us connect campers to others who enjoy similar hobbies or activities, which supports them in making new friends at camp.”

     All of the camps we spoke to have a small camper-to-counselor ratio, which allows for individual attention – a plus whether your child just needs a little extra encouragement to try a new activity, or when a real need arises. No one likes to think about it, but injuries and illnesses do happen. So be sure to ask all of those What If … questions like how camps deal with food allergies, homesickness, tummy aches and both minor and more serious accidents.

   Like the lead camp counselors at Great Parks, senior counselors at the J are certified in first aid and CPR. A camp nurse is on site at the J most days and in the case of minor incidents, parents are notified immediately that their child is OK, according to Rapport. “Should the accident or injury require more than basic first aid, we will call 911 and notify our aquatics department. All lifeguards are trained as first responders. They will administer first aid until the EMS arrives,” she adds.

   At Cincinnati Nature Center, Smallwood explains that staff is certified in first aid and CPR, and practice safety scenarios during training. “CincyNature Camp counselors always work in pairs, so if a camper gets sick or is injured, one counselor is able to provide care to that camper while the other counselor engages the rest of the group. Counselors carry digital walkie-talkies that can connect them immediately with other Nature Center staff, who can come to their aid as needed.” She adds that lots of water breaks and calm activities are part of keeping campers at their best.


Getting Ready

Kids like to know what they’re going to be doing each day, so once you have made your selection, get him ready and excited! Drive by the place he’ll be spending his time, show him some of the activities he will get to experience, and if there’s an opportunity to attend an open house or meet up with other families attending the same program, take full advantage!   The only thing left to do now is eagerly anticipate the first day of his big summer adventure!

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