Doing Your Homework on Day Camp
Clearly, when you're choosing a day camp, your options are limited to places close to home. But you'll still likely have a choice, which is why, Smith says, it's smart to talk with camp directors before making any decisions. Good camps expect to hear from you during the selection process. "When we get an enrollment off the Internet and we don't know the family, we call them," says Bill Jones, director of Camp Lake Hubert and Camp Lincoln in Lake Hubert, MN. "We want parents to know us, and we want to know our parents and kids."
The best camps always have someone who can talk with you before, during, or after camp, or will find someone to return your call. They will always have parental references for you to speak with, and many larger ones hold open houses. What should you look for? While there are specific qualities that make some camps better for a certain child than others (a kid who loves art, for instance, might not be a good fit at a place that's all about horses), keep an eye out for these key things:
- A history. There are definitely great new camps out there. But some experts (and families) believe that operating a camp for decades, especially with the same staff, does mean something. In today's world, a camp simply couldn't stay in business for generations if it were unsafe or poorly run.
- A philosophy. Does it focus on sports? Arts? Leadership? How is this philosophy integrated into its programs?
- An emphasis on creating community. Good camps think about how they place kids together to create the most inclusive experience for all. Another hallmark of community: a scholarship program.
- A well-trained staff, in adequate numbers for a low campers-to-staffers ratio (about 10 to 1 for kids ages 8 to 14). The staff should be background-checked, too, with references, an interview, and a criminal-records search.
- An element of choice. Your child will feel more independent if he can choose some activities.
- A communications plan for letting parents know about upcoming events, and for notifying them if a child becomes sick or injured. They also have a consistent policy on camper phone use.
- A high standard of accreditation. See "Doing a Background Check" on page 4.
In particular, make sure you understand the program's values and mission, and see if its activities match both its goals and your child's interests. You're looking for something educational but not merely an extension of school or daycare: "A day camp should be different, with a wide range of activities your child wouldn't otherwise have access to, that get him up and moving and building new skills," says Smith.