Expert advice on finding the right camp for your child
By Charlotte Eichna
1. Involve Your Child-to a Degree
"Obviously, 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," said Jon Malinowski, Ph.D., camping author and expert. "But 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, said 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. "You can make it collaborative at any age," he says. "Just 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.
Many camp experts believe that accreditation is the first thing a parent should look for when evaluating camps. Unfortunately, this is not as cut-and-dried 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 at acacamps.org/accreditation.)
And don't immediately dismiss camps that aren't accredited, either, according to Malinowski.
"I know of some established camps that have been in business for a long time," he said. "They 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 on 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-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 at 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 "fabulous," according to Thurber.
If between 50 and 70 percent of campers and staff return, that's "very 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.
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?).
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.
"Tell [directors] not who you want your child to be, but who your child really is," said 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.
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