summer camp

Choosing the RIGHT Summer Camp for your Child: A Step-By-Step Guide

summer camp

Sending your most precious possession away to camp for a week or a whole summer is not a decision taken lightly! Here is a step-by-step guide to help you wade through the incredible variety of camps out there, and choose the one best suited for YOUR child.

STEP 1 – Accreditation. Narrow your search immediately by choosing a camp that is accredited by the American Camp Association. This is absolutely essential – even if this is the ONLY step you take, you can rest assured that your camper will be in a safe place! The ACA Standards provide a benchmark of over 250 rules, guidelines and regulations primarily focused on the health and safety of your child, to provide them with the best possible summer camp experience.

STEP 2 – Type of Camp. Here are the key choices you will need to make:

  • Coed, Girls only, or Boys only? A single-gender camp can allow campers to feel more relaxed about their social interactions, and remove the distraction of having the opposite gender around. However, a coed camp provides a safe place to learn crucial social skills in a supervised environment. Boys and girls can learn how to relate to and interact with each other in an unstructured, yet controlled social setting. I have seen the coed camp experience set kids up with social skills that have served them very well as they grow up.
  • Local Day Camp, or full Residential Sleepaway Camp? The youngest campers, usually about 7 or 8 years old, benefit most from a day camp where they can return home every night. However, as soon as they are ready for an overnight camp (usually a full year before YOU are ready to send them), it is time to let them attend one! Personally speaking, (Bias note: I have spent every summer since 1988 working at overnight summer camps) a residential summer camp provides children a much fuller camp experience than a day camp. The soft skills learned while being away from home at a young age will travel with the child throughout his or her life. The independence gained will help carry a child through difficult adolescent experiences. Experienced overnight campers also have an easier time during the first year of college than students taking this giant step in life without the experience of leaving home and the creature comforts and safety it provides.

STEP 3 – Camp Focus and Activities. Make sure the camp provides the activities than meet your child’s wants, needs, and interests. Here are some things to think about when reviewing a camp’s website or brochures:

  • Is your child interested in a specific activity, and does the camp provide it?
  • Does the camp provide free choice of activities, or are they cabin based?
  • Are certain activities mandatory?
  • Does the camp offer a wide range and variety of activities or a narrow specialty program? Are you looking for specific skills to be learned in the summer (film editing, soccer, tennis, golf lessons, etc) or a more well-rounded camp experience?

STEP 4 – Camp Specifics.Take the next step in narrowing down your search by taking into consideration:

  • Session Dates: Does the camp offer dates that are convenient to you? Does it offer the length of session you think is best for your child?
  • Cost of the Programs: What does the Camp price include? Are there extra fees for any activities at camp? What value is the camp offering for your money?
  • Location. (We love California because there is rarely a rainy day at camp!)
  • Special needs: Does the camp provide for any special needs your child has (Dietary, learning disabilities, ADD, physical disabilities)

STEP 5 – Investigate. You’ve narrowed it down to just a few camps that meet all your criteria. Now it’s time to go deeper. Do your research!

  • Visit the camp. This is the absolute best way to find out what a camp is all about. Most camps have open houses in the spring or are happy to give you a site tour at your convenience. Ideally, visit the year before you are thinking of sending your child to camp.
  • Ask Around. Is there anyone in your area who has been a camper there? If not, can you find any testimonials from past campers on the website or reviews elsewhere online?
  • Is it possible to speak with the Camp Director? If the Camp Director can’t take the time to spend a few minutes or even an hour with you talking about their camp – don’t send your child there! As a camp professional for over 20 years, I find it strange when a parent apologizes to me for asking too many questions about my camp. There is no such thing! As a parent, you have every right to know the answers.

STEP 6 – Ask Those Questions! Assuming the Camp Director IS available to speak with you, here are some great topics to ask them about. This is by no means a complete list, but it will certainly get them talking! You will have your own specific questions relating to your child and their needs.

  • STAFFING: What percentage of returning staff does the camp have? What is the average age of the staff? What is the PROGRAM staff to camper ratio (do not count maintenance, housekeeping, kitchen staff) How long is the staff training? What is covered in staff training? How do I know that my child is being cared for in the cabin? Where do the staff members come from? Who conducts the interviews? What is the screening process? What is the director’s age and background? How long has the director run this camp?
  • CAMPERS: What percentage of campers return each year? What type of camper attends the camp? Why do campers choose this camp? What is the policy on bullying? What is the average age of the campers? How many campers of my child’s age will there be? When do girls and boys interact? What is the supervision between girls and boys? Did the camp send any campers home the previous year? For what reason?
  • FACILITY/PROGRAM: What are the sleeping arrangements? What toilet and shower facilities exist? How does the camp ensure the safety and security of its campers? Is the camp a gated community? What do the campers do during inclement weather? Does the camp have a pool? Pond? Lake? Are there waiting lists for some activities? How exactly does the program work? What is a typical day? How do campers choose their programs (if picking an elective program)? How is the food? Is there a sample menu? What does the camp do if your child is a picky eater? Do the campers sit by cabin at meals or wherever they want? Do you survey campers and parents after the summer?
  • EMERGENCY: What medical staff does the camp have on-site? Are all of the staff trained and certified in CPR/First Aid? Where is the closest hospital? How far is the nearest EMS service? What is the camp’s policy on contacting parents if a camper is unwell? What accidents occurred last summer? How did you deal with that situation?
  • PARENTAL CONCERN: Who can I call to check on my child? When are the phones at camp answered? What happens in an emergency? Can I call someone 24/7? Can I send or receive emails from my child? Is my child allowed to call me? Can they have a cell phone? Do you post photos during my child’s stay?

STEP 7 – Choose a Camp! At this point, you have done your research, talked to the camp directors, and maybe even seen the camps for yourself. You have a pretty good feeling about which camp looks and feels right for your child, and you know it will be safe because it is ACA accredited. Go with your instinct. Then send your kid to camp and give them the best summer of their life!

About the Author:

Daniel Hammond is the Director of Pali Adventures, offering 21 specialty camps kids can choose from in Running Springs, CA. Pali is different from other specialty camps because their specialties are so accessible. The programs are encouraging and supportive of all ability levels. They love to see campers explore activities they have only dreamed about – with no pressure to already be good at it. Meeting each individual where they are, Pali tailors an experience to each camper. They have loosely organized their specialties into four broad categories – Adventure, Creativity, Performance and Leadership. 

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