Choosing a Particular Camp
Once families have decided between day or overnight camp, it's time to decide the type of camp to choose. Camps are generally defined by the activities they provide. There are camps that focus on general athletics, specific sports, religious themes, music, visual arts, academics, science, drama, and horseback riding, just to name a few. There are also general outdoor skills camps that focus on swimming, tent camping, canoeing, etc. Even though a camp may focus on a particular activity or need, it will still offer many traditional camping experiences, such as swimming, campfires, hiking, board games, cookouts, etc.
There are also camps that specialize in serving kids with special needs, such as camps for kids with Diabetes. At these special needs camps, children will have lots of opportunities to socialize with other kids going through similar experiences. The staff at these camps usually have specialized training and are equipped to handle their campers' special needs. They may focus on helping youth with special needs do typical "kid stuff" while learning to manage their disease, disability, or difference. As examples, there are specialty camps for kids who have Diabetes, Cerebral Palsy, ADHD, and HIV, for kids who are deaf or blind, and even camps for youth grieving the loss of parent, just to name a few.
With all of these camp options, it can be a bit daunting to figure out how to choose the right one. Families can research a large array of camps in several different ways. Parents and children can talk to their friends and acquaintances in the community to find out where their children have gone in the past, what their experiences were like, and if they'd recommend the camp to others. Or, parents can contact local youth service agencies, town or city parks and recreation departments, places of worship, and other community organizations, or even online directories and assistance programs (such as those offered at www.cappage.com or www.summercamp.org) to see what camps these organizations recommend.
Having developed a short list of prospective camps, there are several things parents will want to consider as they make their final selection. Specifically, parents should look at the range of activities each camp offers to campers, the camp's daily schedule structure, accreditations, staff backgrounds and qualifications, what the facilities are like, and what other supports are offered to campers.
Families need to look closely at what activities are offered to campers, how campers will spend their day, and what back-up activities are planned in case of poor weather. In a positive camp experience, most of a camp's activities should match a child's interests and abilities. However, it's also good to provide children with exposure to new activities or skills. Parents will want to ask about the structure of a typical day at the camp. Most children need a carefully scheduled and planned day in order to keep them engaged and to prevent them from getting into trouble. However, some supervised free time allow youth to unwind and to focus on particular activities they especially enjoy. Families will also want to know about camp rules and how the camp handles discipline for unruly campers. Learning this important information up front enables children to understand camp expectations in advance, and to help parents decide if they are comfortable with the camp's disciplinary policies and procedures.
Parents should ask what accreditations a camp has. The premiere accrediting agency for American youth camps is the American Camping Association. This group accredits about 25 percent of the camps in the nation. They look at camps' health records, safety records, types of staff training, and overall quality of the program. Camps which have earned and maintained ACA accreditation are probably safe bets. However, this does not mean that non-accredited camps are bad. Smaller, more specialized camps may not apply for accreditation. Concerned parents should talk directly to such camps they are considering to determine why they have not pursued accreditation.
In all cases, it is a good idea that parents inquire about a camp's staff to camper ratio, and the qualifications necessary to become a staff member at that camp. They should also confirm that all staff at the camp have had full background checks, both local and national. Furthermore, they should find out what hiring requirements camps have for their staff, such as educational background or camp experience. Often, camps, especially overnight camps, will hire college students or other young adults as camp counselors who stay with the youth overnight and monitor them during most of the day's activities. Parents will want to know who supervises the camp counselors, how much oversight they receive, and how they can reach senior camp staff late at night, if the camp is an overnight camp. Furthermore, parents will want to learn what specific training the staff have received in order work with campers of this age range. Parents should verify that all staff are certified in CPR and basic first aid. Learning this information will help parents decide whether the camp offers adequate supervision.
Beyond asking about staffing, parents will also want to learn about camp facilities, including where the facilities are located, the condition of buildings children will occupy, and what equipment is available. For example, if the camp is a science camp, what type of computers or scientific equipment will they have access to? If it's an outdoor skills camp, how do they maintain their swimming facilities and hiking trails? If it's a sports camp, where will children practice the sport? Parents will also want to know about the living quarters, such as dining spaces, bathroom facilities, shower facilities, and sleeping arrangements. Such information is important for motivational as well as health reasons. While some campers will love the idea of sleeping in tents or in bunks that aren't air-conditioned, this same arrangement may not be appropriate for other children with certain health conditions such as asthma.
Finally, parents will want to find out what other supports are available to campers. For example, it is important to learn about medical facilities the camp may offer should children become sick or hurt, or if they require regular medical care. In this same vein, parents will want to ask about the camp's arrangements for handling medical emergencies and other situations they are not equipped to manage in-house, how they handle homesick or otherwise emotionally stressed campers, bullying situations and camper conflicts. If children have other special needs, such as requiring a peanut-free restricted diet due to food allergies, parents should talk to the camp staff to find out if the camp can accommodate these special needs.