Not so long ago, a fulfilling summer at Camp Wackamucka might consist of activities like tetherball, mandatory swim lessons at the lake (rain or shine — remember that?!), a round of archery, and rainy arts and crafts afternoons with a strong emphasis on lanyard-making. Accommodations were rustic and rudimentary at best, with hot, damp, mosquito-filled cabins requiring a weekly stipend just for calamine lotion, and creating mounds of mildewed clothing for mom to launder just before the start of school.
But expectations have changed in the 21st Century, with thousands of specialty camps offering participants the opportunity to hone a variety of skills and interests: football, physics, astronomy, track and field, tennis, gymnastics, horseback riding, computers, musical theater, and dance, to name just a few. So how do you choose the right camp experience for your child? What are the things to look for when determining the best fit for her likes and lifestyle, and how do you meld this with your own requirements, concerns, and budget?
Though your child may be a star athlete or chess player, or excel on the tympani or in the chemistry lab, it’s possible he doesn’t want to spend his summer, or even a part of it, working at these things. Summer, after all, is the time for a change of pace. Early on, it’s important to ascertain just what appeals to your child, and if the interest can be sustained for the duration of the camp experience. Though the pressure is on today for kids to be the best at everything they do, make sure you don’t confuse your own interests, desires, and goals for your child with his, or an unhappy camp experience could be on the horizon. What’s more, for some, a more traditional summer camp that exposes them to a range of popular activities such as swimming, sailing, softball, volleyball, canoeing, and hiking may be the perfect option.
The Staff and You
According to such entities as the National Camp Association, the Camp Advisory Service, and the American Camp Association (the nation’s largest camp accrediting organization), which offer referrals and address issues of health, safety, and program quality, when screening a camp it’s important to determine what the counselor-to-camper ratio is, which changes as a child grows and becomes more independent. For example, ACA guidelines for overnight camps mandate a 1:6 ratio for ages 7 to 8; 1:8 for ages 9 to 14; and 1:10 for ages 15 to 18. Day camp guidelines call for a 1:8 counselor/camper ratio for ages 6 to 8; 1:10 for ages 9 to 14; and 1:12 for ages 15 to 18.
Also, the age of camp personnel is important, with the ACA recommending 80 percent of the staff be 18 or older, and the rest be at least 16 and a minimum of two years older than the campers they supervise. Be sure to check for current certifications, especially in the area of swimming and water safety.
Perhaps paramount to everything, make sure the camp conducts thorough background checks on all personnel: counselors, kitchen and domestic staff, and even office and medical staff.
Night and Day
When exploring the idea of sleep away versus day camp, remember that, while age is a factor, some children are more social or extroverted–and at an earlier age–than others. In this respect, some kids may be able to adapt to being away from home for a week, month, or the entire summer sooner than their friends or siblings.
Bear in mind that, especially for sleep away first timers, location can be important–for them and you. Depending on the length of the session, which can range from one to eight weeks, there are generally one or two visiting days, and you don’t want to be so far away that you can’t get there.
Calling All Parents (and Kids)
If you can visit the site in season, in advance of making a decision, make sure to investigate all facilities including cabins, dining hall, toilet and shower facilities, boat house, athletic storage buildings, etc. If they are in good repair, chances are the camp is well maintained. Exploring things during the season also provides opportunities to speak with individual counselors and campers.
If unable to visit, ask for references. Where possible, in addition to interviewing other parents on the phone, have your child speak to their child for examples of specific camp experiences. Within reason, speak to as many families as possible for a diversity of details and opinions.
About the Size of It
Summer camps generally range in size from as few as 50 campers to many hundreds. If the camp you select is larger, make sure groups and activities are broken down into smaller factions to reasonably accommodate each camper. Children develop their skills at different rates, and getting lost in a crowd without the resulting individual growth, challenges, and benefits for which you sent her to summer camp may compromise the experience.
While summer camp is not inexpensive, with costs running the gamut from a few hundred dollars a week for day camps to several thousands of dollars for a sleep away summer, those offered through the local YMCA or nonprofit or religious organizations often cost less and may even provide financial assistance. You may want to inquire about any existing refund policies for a deposit, or if the child leaves early for some reason, and if those reasons are provisional–for example medical reasons versus personal reasons (translation: “I broke my arm” versus “I don’t like it here”).
Though the simpler days of archery and tetherball may have gone the way of the transistor radio, finding the right summer camp experience for your child–and you–should be considered a challenge, not a chore. If you start early–and many experts recommend even a full year ahead of time–discovering what’s available may open up a whole new world of fun, challenges, and opportunities.