It may only be winter, but it’s already time to plan for summer camp. If residential camp is a possibility this year, your mind may be filled with uncertainties: Is my child ready? How do I find the right camp? How do I prepare my child? Here are some tips, questions to ask, and points to consider before sending your child to sleepaway camp.
Is My Kid Emotionally Ready for Camp?
It’s natural for kids and their parents to feel anxious about a first-time camp experience, says Eric Rightor, Avid4 Adventure senior manager of resident camps and director for the Mt. Evans program. But, in general, he says, the answer to whether a child is emotionally ready for sleepaway camp is a resounding, “Yes!”
“Kids are stronger than you think,” Rightor says. “Ninety-five percent of kids are ready to go to camp, and it’s really about the approach to that situation. It’s a lot about having a nervous conversation,” he says, and letting your child know, “You’re ready for it; you can do it.” Here are some ways Rightor says parents can prepare their children emotionally for the camp experience:
- Build confidence and independence. Has your child ever slept away from home? Do they do chores? The idea is to build these skills in the off season, before your child gets to camp. For example, let them have a sleepover at a friend or relative’s home if they haven’t before; or allow them to experience a night of tent camping, even if it’s only in your backyard. Once your child arrives at camp, her mindset can be, “I’ve already done this.”
- Get small questions out of the way. It’s important to give context to kids’ camp concerns. Are they worried they won’t know anyone, won’t complete a certain activity, or embarrass themselves? Help them understand those are normal concerns for every first-time camper. Keep in mind, too, camp staff have years of experience working with kids who are nervous about camp.
- Consider transitions. Camp staff often deal with kids whose families are going through some transition, perhaps a divorce, move to a new city, or death of a relative. It’s critical, then, to allow your kid to ease into that transition before camp. And at the very least, notify the camp of your child’s challenges so they can help facilitate a positive camp experience.
- Hide your own nerves. Remember, camp staff manage to get hundreds of kids outside safely every day and every summer, so try to trust the process. Camp directors understand parents are entrusting your most valuable asset to them.
Five Questions to Ask a Camp Director
Camp directors are a critical part of your child’s camp experience. Asking one the right questions can help you select the right camp for your kid’s needs. Rightor offers five questions that parents can ask a camp director to help whittle down the list to the camp that’s the best fit.
- Are you willing to chat with my child before camp? Whether it’s a phone call or FaceTime, directors should be willing to chat with any parent or child who’s researching their camp.
- What do the first 24 hours look like for my camper? Camps should have a good idea of how that first full day looks for your child, including the check-in process, planned activities, and ways the camp helps campers make new friends.
- How can I contact my child if necessary? Make sure you know the ways to contact your children if necessary. Also, ask how long it usually takes the camp director to respond to a parent.
- What do you like about your job? Camp directors should be able to have a passionate conversation about why their program is outstanding and why it’s going to be a good experience for your child.
- How do you build the staff culture? Good directors will not only train staff properly, but they’ll also build staff morale by working in some fun during training and allowing them sufficient time off to stay fresh during camp season. If the staff culture is fun, chances are the camp culture will reflect that.
Here are some key issues that are critical in determining whether a potential camp is safe for your child.
- Facility conditions In-person site visits can be a great way to assess a camp, starting with the conditions of camp. Do the cabins look maintained or shabby? Does the campus seem to be in good condition or neglected? If you can’t check in person, see if there are photos posted on the camp’s site. Camp Chief Ouray (CCO) in Granby, for instance, offers visitors 360-degree virtual tours, according to CCO executive Michael Ohl; click on a section of the camp and go inside buildings.
- Staff training It’s important to know how staff are trained to manage day-to-day life with your child. For example, are the camp’s lifeguards brown-water certified for lakes, streams, and rivers, or only for the pool?
- Special accommodations You may have a child who has unique dietary considerations, or one who has special needs. Find out how a camp will manage these needs. At Avid, staff review health forms before campers arrive so they can prepare for accommodations. For more severe allergies/behavioral/medical needs, Avid’s nurse consultant might reach out to families to craft a specific plan.
- Staff supervision of campers What does an average day look like in camp? If it’s a structured day, for example, the staff should account for campers routinely throughout the day, and that means an actual “face check” instead of head counts. Every time there’s a transition at CCO from one activity to another—when kids leave cabins, at roll call, during activity dismissal, etc.—counselors will check the face of each camper.
- Discipline policy Ask how a camp manages discipline. For instance, is there a zero-tolerance policy for certain behaviors? And how does the camp handle bullying?
- Camp communication How does the camp communicate with parents and how can a parent reach her child? At Avid, for instance, email is the most effective tool. Avid sends about six emails leading up to campers start day, offers a pre-camp guide, and calls families a week before to answer other questions. They also employ a staff member whose role is supporting families by email and phone.
Top 5 “Red Flag” Questions to Ask a Camp
The American Camp Association (ACA) is a nonprofit organization that establishes accreditation guidelines for U.S. camps through a voluntary, peer-review program focused on health, safety, and risk management of camp operations. First and foremost, parents should ask whether a camp is ACA accredited. From there, they recommend asking these five questions to help weed out red flags:
- Staff Ratio Where are the adults? Make sure your camp maintains an appropriate ratio of staff-to-children (the ratios vary by age and situation). All staff must receive training to minimize the potential of being in a 1:1 camper/staff situation when out of sight of others.
- Safety Does the camp ensure water-craft safety (life vests and lifeguard certification), helmets, harnesses, emergency exits, etc.? Does the camp require background checks on staff?
- Health Does the camp maintain a health care center/facility, medication storage, emotional health support, etc.?
- Security Is the camp guarded? What is their missing-child protocol?
- Accessibility Is the camp accessible for your child to learn and have fun, worry-free? How inclusive can this camp be for your child?
Parents Point Out
Other parents who’ve sent their kids off to residential camp are a valuable source of information. Consider the following tips from parents in the know before you send your kid off to camp, to avoid uncertainties along the way.
- Determine the camera policy. Most camps want kids unplugged from technology, but what about cameras? Some camps may allow a disabled phone for kids to take photos or a traditional camera. Other camps prefer that campers leave all types of cameras behind and rely on staff to take pictures, which they send to parents or upload to a private camp Facebook group. Find one that fits your photo needs.
- Find out about laundry. If your kid is attending a multi-week camp, chances are good they’ll need to wash clothes. Ask if there are on-site facilities or services, or if your child needs to bring money to use off-site laundry facilities.
- Consider having your children pack their own bags, and double check the packing checklist with them afterward. This way, they’ll know where most of the items are placed in their bags.
- Figure out how far the drop-off parking lot is from the cabins. If it’s far, is there a shuttle, or will campers be expected to carry their bags? This will help you determine the best size and type of bags to pack.
- Want to send your child a letter or care package? Ask for the mailing address of the camp and make sure you only send items the camp allows them to have.