Looking for a camp that will offer your child a safe, happy opportunity to develop new skills this summer? Start with the basics: Ask the director of any camp you’re considering how long it’s been operating and what licenses it has. You should be aware, however, that state licensing requirements vary widely, and in many cases, are minimal.
If the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association, you can be assured that the day camp or sleepaway camp on your list has satisfied the nonprofit organization’s more than 300 standards on health, safety, facilities, programs and staffing.
But many good programs are too new or too small to get ACA accreditation, which costs money and staff time. Even an accredited camp can be a poor match for your child if the camp’s “culture” doesn’t fit his temperament.
That means a parent considering any program needs to ask lots of questions. Here are 10 to ask the camp director:
1. What’s the camp’s philosophy?
Is it one you’re comfortable with as a parent? Is it a good match for your child’s temperament? Is competition or cooperation emphasized? If it’s a camp run by a religious organization, what religious observances or practices are part of the program? If you’re looking at a sports camp that touts an affiliation with a celebrity athlete, how much time — if any — will the sports star actually spend there?
2. How does the camp recruit, screen and train its staff?
Do counselors have criminal background checks? First aid training?
3. What about return rates?
How many counselors are returning this year? The ACA says at most camps, 40-60 percent of the staff returns. If the number you’re given is lower, ask why. How many campers return? Fifty percent is good, and more is better.
4. What’s the ratio of counselors to campers?
ACA guidelines for overnight camps call for a 1:6 ratio for ages 7 and 8, 1:8 for ages 9-14; and 1:10 for ages 15-18. Day camp guidelines call for 1:8 for children ages 6-8; 1:10 for children ages 9-14; and 1:12 for ages 15-18.
5. How old are the counselors?
The ACA recommends that 80 percent of the staff be 18 or older and that all staffers be at least 16 and a minimum of two years older than the campers they supervise.
6. What medical staff work at the camp and what backup facilities are nearby?
While most states have regulations for camps, there is no federal oversight of camps’ health and safety. The ACA recommends that an overnight camp have a licensed physician or registered nurse on the site every day, and that day camps should have direct phone access. If your child takes medication, has food allergies or a chronic medical condition, be sure you are comfortable that the camp will be able to handle your child’s needs.
7. What is the camp’s approach to discipline and how does the camp handle conflicts between campers?
Find out what the camp’s rules are and what breaches would result in a camper being sent home. You should be comfortable that the camp’s practices are in line with your parenting practices.
8. What does a typical daily schedule look like?
This will help you decide if your child will be happy with the level of physical activity or the amount of time devoted to arts and crafts. Ask how much freedom a child has to choose activities.
9. Will the camp be transporting the children?
What vehicles are used and how often are they inspected? Who drives them and what training do drivers have?
10. Ask for references.
Finally and most important, get the names of parents with children the same age who have attended the camp. While it’s true that a director is likely to give you the names of campers who had good experiences, you’ll be able to get a fuller view of the camp by asking the right questions, says ACA President Ann Sheets.
“Ask ‘Is there anything you didn’t like about the camp?’ And let your child talk to their child, too,” she says.