As summer-camp-search season continues, it’s time to think about what you actually want to know about the camps you are considering for your kids so that you can ask the right questions when chatting with camp directors and staff.
“Over the years, I have encouraged parents to attend an open house and meet the director or owner [of the camp],” says Nancy Oken-Redfield, owner and executive director of River Way Ranch Camp, a resident camp in Sanger in operation for 50 years. “If that is not possible, then set up a time to speak on the phone.”
Here are questions Oken-Redfield and other local camp directors suggest you ask.
What training and experience do staff members have?
Oken-Redfield suggests parents ask specifically about the age range of the counselors, and says River Way Ranch requires CPR, first-aid and lifeguard training, plus special training in meeting campers’ individual needs and dealing with challenging behaviors.
Joy Meserve, chief program officer at iD Tech, which offers computer camps for kids and teens on several local university campuses, says staff quality is key. “How are they at engaging each child and looking out for their well-being?” she asks. “Not even the best camp can do well if their staff doesn’t care to put energy or passion toward engaging the students.”
Do you count counselors-in-training in the camper-to-staff ratio?
The camper-to-staff ratio is the average number of campers per staff member during the camp day. It is a measure of how closely supervised your child will be at camp. Meserve suggests this as a follow-up staffing question. Counselors-in-training can be as young as 12 at some camps, and won’t be as qualified as an actual counselor. In camps dedicated to specific activities, such as Hansen Dam Riding School in Sylmar, “the less experience a camper has, the lower the ratio of [campers to] instructors should be,” says Marnye Langer, who helps run the school.
Who would I call if I can’t sleep at night worried about my child?
Even if your child isn’t going to a sleep-away camp, you should have a phone number for someone in charge who can address your questions and concerns, as well as a direct phone number for a person who is on site during camp hours. Be aware that these might be two different numbers and two different people.
How much time will my child spend doing the activity or activities they’re coming to camp for?
If this is a camp dedicated to theater, for instance, Evelyn Rudie, co-artistic director of Santa Monica Playhouse, which offers workshops for ages 4-17, suggests asking whether every child gets an equal opportunity to perform. “Do the students get to work on an actual stage? Are there outdoor as well as indoor spaces in which the activities take place?” she asks.
For a riding camp, questions Langer suggests include, “How much riding is there and what are the riding activities? What activities does the camp have regarding handling and working around horses?”
For activity-based camps, you want to know about participation, but also about other activities offered. For more traditional camps, ask about the full slate of activities – swimming, crafts, archery, etc. – and also how much of the day is devoted to each.
What do you do for campers who don’t seem to be having fun?
Langer says that some parents are so focused on camp activities that they forget to ask about the child’s experience. “Unless a kid is attending a camp where skill acquisition is the primary goal, say a basketball camp for high-school level players or a super-focused music camp, the experience and fun should be the goal for the child,” she says.
How does the camp handle homesickness? Bullying? Emergencies including injuries and natural disasters?
These questions suggested by Oken-Redfield point to a variety of situations directors and staff should plan for. Homesickness (or separation anxiety) can happen even at a day camp. Bullying is a too-common fact of life when groups of kids get together. Children engaged in fun outdoor activities or even just routine play sometimes get hurt, and we live in wildfire and earthquake country. If the director and staff can’t readily describe their plan – or, better yet, hand you a written policy – for dealing with these issues, that camp is no place for your child.
How many campers return year after year?
Another Oken-Redfield question points to a true hallmark of camp quality. If their child had a dynamite time at camp last summer, few busy parents will go searching for new options the following year. A camp that can point to lots of repeat business is doing something right.
How do you integrate new campers into the community?
Jaclyn Aranda, director of summer camp at The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, suggests asking this question – which is especially relevant at camps where kids come back again and again. “All parents have different perspective and place focus on different items,” she says, but also reminds moms and dads to ask about the basic features such as transportation options, cancellation policy, financial aid and who provides lunch.
How do you think your camp is different from others?
Another suggestion from Aranda could be a clincher. Camp directors and staff at a camp with a well-articulated mission should be able to tell you what makes their camp special and how attending it will benefit your child.
These certainly aren’t the only questions you might ask as you check out summer camps, but they are a good start. If you’re able to visit the camp site, you can look around and gather additional information.
Oken-Redfield says it is important to note whether the site is secure – on a fenced school campus or in its own facility – or somewhere such as a park or beach that is open to the public. Supervision is extra important in open locations. You also want the facility, wherever it is, to be clean and well maintained.
A camp visit is also a chance to meet camp staff, and Meserve suggests bringing your child along to see how well they draw her or him in. “Do staff engage with them right away, or only when asked? Is anyone carrying things for you? Asking if you have questions?” she says. You’re looking for friendliness, efficiency and a willingness to jump in and help.
As you look around and talk with the staff, take notes and jot down answers to your questions – and your child’s. This will help you compare camps you are considering, and guide you toward a decision for the summer.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.