I still remember the Excel spreadsheet my husband created when our son was in grade school. We were trying to patch together multiple summer day-camp options that would be fun and enriching for him and that would also, frankly, help us out with child care while we both worked. We talked with friends, read everything we could get our hands on, poured over websites … and cobbled together a plan. What we didn’t have was great advice — like the tips from our experts, below — on how to go about the whole process.
With this advice, you’ll know where to start looking, what questions to ask, and you’ll even nab a few tips on what to do once you’ve chosen the right camp(s) for your child. Happy summer-camping!
- Know your child. “The age and interests of the child help to determine which type of camp experience will fit,” says Howard Batterman, of Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, owner and director of Sesame/Rockwood Camps and Rockwood Adventures Teen Travel Program. “With very young children ages 4 to 5, the length of the day and the week is a consideration. Most day camps offer mini or full days with extended hours for working families before and after the regular camp-day hours,” adds Batterman, who also has held several leadership positions with the American Camp Association (ACA) (http://www.acacamps.org). “With older children, you will be looking into either a traditionally based program (which often includes swimming, sports, arts and outdoor-adventure activities and instruction) or short-term specialty programs with an emphasis on a particular activity: sports, theater, dance, magic — or even something like robotics or culinary arts,” he says.
- Ask around. Of course, the Web is a great source of information on local day camps. You’ll also want to check out summer-camp fairs, which are often held in the spring at local schools or community centers. But word-of-mouth suggestions can be the best sources of info, Batterman says. Parents from your child’s school, neighbors and relatives are often happy to share their experiences with day camps, he adds. It’s even helpful to ask a favorite baby sitter if he or she went to day camp or perhaps worked at one. Be sure to ask, “What did you like about the camp? What did you dislike? Would your child want to return to the same camp again in the future?” Some parents also ask their Facebook friends for recommendations when looking for camps. As you ask around, start creating a short list of camps that you want to consider.
- Schedule a visit — and bring your questions. “Schedule a time to visit, along with your child, and tour the facilities with the director,” suggests Batterman. Ask questions. Are lunch and snacks provided or do kids bring food from home? Is there care taken for children with food allergies? Is there a nurse on staff? Is transportation provided to and from your home? If so, how is that done? What is the staff-to-camper ratio? (This varies based on the age of the campers. For the younger campers, Batterman recommends a 3:1 (camper-to-staff) ratio; for older campers, a 5:1 ratio.) How are children grouped? Is there a swim program? If so, what certifications do the people hold who are running that program? What is the interview process for the staff? Have staff members had extensive background checks and been fingerprinted? What type of training do staff members receive?
- Check out camp security. What procedures are in place to sign-out a camper? At Batterman’s camps, for example, each family is mailed ID cards before the start of camp. Child-custody and parental restrictions should be strictly enforced, he notes. Also, staff should be wearing camp t-shirts or some other type of uniform, plus photo ID on a lanyard, says Batterman. “This ensures that each staff member is identified,” he adds. “If a stranger is on camp property, they are easy to spot.”
- Ask about visitation policies. Batterman suggests looking for a camp with an open-visitation policy for parents. “This is important because it tells the parents that the camp has nothing to hide,” he says. “Parents should be able to stop by camp at their leisure to visit their child.” (Always be sure to check in upon your arrival, as the camp will need to keep track of all visitors for security reasons.)
- Check on accreditation. Is the camp ACA accredited? The American Camp Association is the governing body of both day and residential camps. “Camps that are accredited must comply with more than 300 standards for the health, safety and welfare of campers and employees,” says Batterman.
Once you decide on a camp, you’ll want to make sure your child has a great experience. These suggestions from Donna Schwartz, associate executive director of Siegel JCC day camps for children and teens in Wilmington, Delaware, has these suggestions:
- Pack wisely. You will likely receive a “what to bring to camp” list from the camp before your child’s first day. Will your child be carrying her stuff around with her all day at camp? If so, pack minimally required items, and considering having your child use a small backpack.
- Keep food safe. Will your child’s lunch be refrigerated? If so, pack it in a brown paper bag labeled with his name and group name. If not, pack it in an insulated lunch box (also labeled) with an ice pack.
- Remember the sunscreen. How much outdoor time will your child get? It’s always a good idea to slather your child with sunscreen before she is sent to camp, but if there is a lot of swim time and outdoor time, send more sunscreen along, to be re-applied by the staff.
- Do not send along toys or electronics. Camp is about socializing, making new friends and trying new things. If you send along electronics (assuming they are even allowed at the camp), your child will be will be more isolated and focused on playing Angry Birds instead of enjoying camp activities. Plus, electronics have a way of getting lost at camp.
- Label everything. Your child inevitably will lose something. You are more likely to get an item back if it has his name on it.
Kathy Sena is a freelance journalist specializing in parenting issues. Her son has done everything from science experiments to basketball to swimming at summer day camps. She still swears by her trusty Excel spreadsheet.