Expert advice on finding the right camp for your child
1. Involve Your Child's To a Degree
â€œObviously, you maybe don"t let the child pick the exact camp, because they may pick it from the pretty picture in the brochure and not based on safety or some other issue, says Jon Malinowski, Ph.D., camping author and expert. â€œBut the worst thing a parent can do is to just choose a camp, decide that the child is going to camp and not involve the child in the process at all. It"s a recipe for a very unhappy, very homesick child.
Christopher Thurber, Ph.D., camping author, says that even with children as young as five, parents can do research ahead of time, then present a few options, any of which they"d be happy to follow through with. â€œYou can make it collaborative at any age, he says. â€œJust kind of tailor it to what is developmentally appropriate.
Alternatively, consider bringing your child along when you shop for camping supplies, even for things as simple as a new toothbrush or pair of sneakers. â€œDon"t go out and get the stuff and come home and say, â€˜Here are the shorts I got you," Thurber says. â€œAnd your kid is like, â€˜Oh my gosh, you"re so dorky."
Once you"ve selected a camp, be optimistic and excited for your child, Thurber says. Your camper might get nervous as opening day approaches's and so might you's but don"t suggest that if they feel homesick, you"ll come get them. The subtext of that message, Thurber explained, is that a parent has so little confidence in his child"s ability to cope with normal feelings that she"ll have to be rescued.
â€œInstead, say, â€˜Yeah, there probably will be something you miss about home," Thurber says. â€œâ€˜Almost everyone misses something about home when they"re away. But I know you can make it, I know you can do it."
Many camp experts believe that accreditation is the first thing a parent should look for when evaluating camps. Unfortunately, this criterion is not as cut-and-dry an issue as parents might wish. Just because a camp is accredited doesn"t mean it"s good, while a camp that lacks accreditation isn"t necessarily bad. And finding an accredited camp certainly doesn"t let a parent off the hook when it comes to doing additional research.
Accreditation is typically given by the American Camp Association (ACA). Two highly trained standards visitors, one of whom is often a camp director, tour the site for about a day, poking through cabins, prowling in the mess hall and scoping out the waterfront to make sure the camp meets the association"s approximately 300 safety and health standards. There"s also a thorough review of paperwork beforehand. (You can read more about the process on its web site, acacamps.org/accreditation.)
â€œIt is a very intensive, grueling process for a camp, says Renee Flax, program services director for the American Camp Association-New York. â€œWe"re checking the credentials of the people that are involved, we"re making sure that their physical site is a safe place for your child to be. So we"re going into the kitchen, we"re going into the dining room, we"re going into the bunks.
Accreditation is not, however, an affirmation of a program"s quality; health and safety are the main objectives of this evaluation.
â€œWe are never judging a camp by the program that it runs, Flax says. â€œWe don"t care what activities you offer. All we"re saying is they have to be safe.
And don"t immediately dismiss camps that aren"t accredited, either, according to Malinowski.
â€œI know of some established camps that have been in business for a long time, he says. â€œThey do their own thing and don"t feel a need to be involved with the ACA. It"s not uncommon for YMCA, Jewish and Christian fundamentalist camps to pass up accreditation, he explained. The bottom line, though, is that if a camp isn"t accredited, parents should ask why.
3. Are People Sticking Around?
Accredited or not, parents should try to find out if people are coming back. That goes for the director, staff and campers.
A camp that attracts directors who stay for a long time is probably stable, has a consistent vision and is generally a fun place to be. But don"t just ask how long the current director has been around, says Thurber's the current director might be a relative newcomer. Instead, ask what the average tenure for directors has been in the life of the camp.
Also ask about return rates. No camp will have all its staff or campers return the following year, since many become too old for the program. But a 70 to 80 percent return rate is â€œfabulous, according to Thurber.
If between 50 and 70 percent of campers and staff return, that"s â€œvery good. But if less than half of eligible campers and staff are choosing to return, it could indicate problems with the camp"s quality.
A caveat: Specialty programs may have lower return rates by nature. A child might attend a computer camp one summer, for example, and want to try something different next year.
4. Meet and Greet
We know you"re busy, but once you"ve narrowed down a short list, be sure to visit camps, or at the very least meet the director. Many camps offer rookie days or weekends for prospective campers, according to Joanne Paltrowitz, founder of the advisory service Camp Experts. A visit also lets a parent see firsthand that the waterfront is safe (can you easily identify who"s in charge?), the grounds are well kept (is there broken glass underfoot or tools laying around?) and the bunks meet fire codes (are there fire alarms and fire extinguishers?).
In private camps and Y programs, Paltrowitz estimated that roughly 90 percent of campers have met the director, either at the camp or in the prospective camper"s home. â€œIt"s important for bunk placement. It"s important, I think, for a parent turning over their child to someone, she says.
Also, ask what the director does during the rest of the year, their experience with children and his or her vision for the camp.
5. Be Honest About Your Child
Your kid is obviously better than everyone else"s. But try, when you"re chatting with the director, to give the full picture.
â€œTell [directors] not what you want your child to be, but what your child really is, says Flax.
Believe it or not, a director will tell you if your child won"t fit in, Flax says.
An honest assessment of your child"s personality will also help the director decide on counselors and bunk placement.
Honesty means being frank about your child"s interests and talents as well. And if you have pinpointed something he or she wants to do, make sure the activity is not just an added bonus listed in the brochure.
â€œYou need to ask the question, â€˜How often will my child actually get to do that activity?" suggests Malinowski. â€œThey may offer horseback riding, but if it"s only one hour a week, the child"s going to be disappointed.
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