Selecting the Right Summer Camp

Happy CamperWith so many different kinds of camps out there, the biggest challenge is finding the right one for your child. Ann Sheets, president of the American Camping Association, urges parents and children to make decisions about summer camp together.

“There are lots of important questions to ask, and both parent and child need to be very comfortable with the decision that’s made,” she says. “If children have a part in it, they’re certainly going to have a better experience.”

With that in mind, here’s a guide to the available camp programs, and the questions to ask when trying to choose one for your child.

Getting Started What to Look For
The Basics Costs
Approach and Activities Staff
Medical Care Picking an Overnight or Day Camp


Getting Started

The first step in choosing a camp is to assess your child’s particular needs and ask what he or she wants from the camp experience. The next step is to explore your options. Whether day or residential, most camps fall into one of several categories:

• Traditional-style camps offer a wide range of activities.

• Specialty camps focus on a child’s particular area of interest – such as the arts or a sport – or need – such as academic support.

• Travel camps take campers on hikes, or on horseback or canoe rides, in parks or other outdoor sites or to destinations abroad.

• Preschool camps are for children ages 2.9 to 4-1/2. Since children this age need more supervision, these usually boast a small staff-to-camper ratio.

• Special-needs camps are designed to meet the needs of children with learning disabilities, hearing and health impairments, and other disabilities. Some camps integrate children with nondisabled children for all or part of the day and provide extra support and attention. Others are designed to meet the needs of individuals with a specific disability or disorder.
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What to Look For

Although some camps offer many extras in terms of facilities and activities, parents should look for the elements of camps that have remained the same over the years, advises Barbara Davis of the American Camping Association (ACA). “Working cooperatively, building friendships and learning new skills are the most essential components of the camping experience, more important than all the trappings.”

Once you have a good idea of what you and your child want from a summer camp, talk to other parents to get a better understanding of what’s out there. Most camps have an active parents’ group, but friends and neighbors are also valuable resources. Send for camp literature or a video, attend open houses, arrange to speak with the director and take a tour of the camp.

Davis advises parents to ask questions of camp directors and staff. “Don’t just ask, ‘Is it a good camp?’” she says. “Ask, ‘What are its strengths and weaknesses? What are the return rates for campers and for staff?’ You want a stable community for the child, which is why the return rates are important. A 50-percent return rate is OK; more than that is better.” Asking the questions suggested below about the camp’s staff and facilities will help you better understand the program.

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The Basics

Canoeing at Camp• What session lengths are offered? Can your child sign up for just one or all of the sessions? How does the staff ease the social transition/integration of children arriving for later sessions?

• What is the age range of the campers? Will your child be the youngest or oldest camper in a group? If you are not happy with this arrangement, can your child be moved to another group? If your child is going to camp with a friend, can they be in the same group or bunk?

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• What is the tuition? What does it include? Are there other expenses parents are expected to cover, such as trips outside the camp? • Is financial aid available? According to a 1998 survey of camp directors conducted by the ACA, 65 percent of camps surveyed offered some level of financial assistance. It is very important to investigate these opportunities and apply early.

• What is the refund policy? Refund policies vary greatly from camp to camp, according to the ACA. Some refund for illness only, some will give a total refund prior to certain date, and some don't refund at all.

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Approach and Activities

• What’s the camp philosophy? Every camp has a different view of the camping experience. The camp should have clear goals and a program designed to meet the goals expressed in its literature and by its director.

• Is there a variety of activities planned? Ask for a copy of a typical schedule. What alternatives are planned for rainy days? What nighttime activities are offered? If it’s a specialty camp, are other activities planned?

• What’s the pace of the day? Are there free periods for downtime or rest? How does the camp accommodate the needs of campers of different ages?

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camp staff• What is the background and experience of the director? Find out if the director was a camper or counselor at the camp. How long has he or she been director? This information may indicate how smoothly the camp runs and the director’s knowledge about the camp.

• What are the criteria for hiring staff and what is the ratio of staff to campers? The staff’s average age, experiences and familiarity with the camp may affect your child’s camping experience.

• At a specialty camp, what level of expertise does the staff have? For example, a music camp should have professional music teachers instructing campers.

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• What are the condition and safety of the facilities and equipment? The camp site should be free of hazards, such as unprotected cliffs, swamps and dangerous water areas. The waterfront should be roped off in separate sections for beginner, intermediate and advanced swimmers. Does the camp provide all the necessary equipment, and is it in good condition?

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Medical Care

• How is medical care handled? Is there an on-site nurse or nearby doctor on call? Where is the nearest hospital located?

• How are emergencies handled? Does every member of the camp staff know CPR and first aid? What is the procedure for contacting parents in case of emergency?

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Day CampPicking a Day Camp

• What are the camp hours? Many camps offer extended hours for working parents, both before and after camp. Inquire about activities during this time.

• Does the camp provide transportation? Ask about costs, whether vans or buses have seat belts and the experience of the drivers.

• Is lunch provided ? If so, does it cost extra? Can the camp accommodate food allergies? If children must bring their own lunches, are they refrigerated until lunch time? Does the camp provide snacks? 

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Picking an Overnight Camp

Overnight Camp• What is the director’s availability? Can your child go to the director if he or she has a problem? Find out when you can call the director to inquire about difficulties your child may be having or to find out how your child is doing.

• Is there someone responsible for campers at all times? Make sure that your child’s whereabouts are monitored. Find out how counselors handle problems such as homesickness or conflicts with other campers.

• What are the condition and safety of the facilities and equipment? The camp site should be free of hazards, such as unprotected cliffs, swamps and dangerous water areas. The waterfront should be roped off in separate sections for beginner, intermediate and advanced swimmers. Does the camp provide all

• Are the living quarters comfortable and sanitary? Are there bathroom facilities and electricity in the bunks? Determine your child’s level of comfort. Will he or she be happier camping out in a tent or sleeping in a bunk?