Ask the Camp Director 2016

By Christina Elston

How can kids keep up with their new friends and interests once school starts?

summer camp

Image Courtesy of TGA Golf and Tennis

If you’ve done a good job with your camp search, your child will spend most of the summer making new friends and discovering new things they love to do. In fact, camp activities and friendships go hand-in-hand.

“Kids get so connected at our camps because they’re coming up with all these inside jokes,” says Katy Chase, co-founder of Studio LOL comedy school in Studio City. “Improv is so very social. Improv is a team sport.”

Sports can be another great way for kids to connect. “Golf is a unique game. There’s a lot of time to engage with the playing partners and get to know each other,” explains Ryan Branning, Program director of TGA Golf and Tennis, which offers camps at several Southern California locations.

Kids make friends from as far away as Brazil, Japan and India at the Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA) Summer Intensive. Students stay at the dorms at USC together, and go on excursions every Sunday.

Once camp is over, camp directors say kids have no trouble keeping in touch. “With the development of social media, it’s gotten to be pretty easy,” says Karen McDonald, program director at DADA, “because so many of the kids are on Facebook.”

Keeping up with their favorite activities also helps kids stay in touch with friends they made at camp. Many programs offer options throughout the year, including winter break camps and after-school and weekend classes.

Last year, all of the students from the DADA summer intensive participated in the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics. And some of the students from summer also come back in September and audition for “Debbie Allen’s Hot Chocolate Nutcracker.” “We have a cast of almost 200,” says McDonald.

Explore your child’s options, and you’re sure to find a great bridge to next summer.

How Can We Have a Great First Day of Camp?

summer camp

PHOTO COURTESY LA SALLE HIGH SCHOOL

Nothing marks the end of a successful summer-camp search like knowing your child’s first day was happy and filled with fun. Here are some tips for getting camp off to a great start.

Do your homework so that you know the drop-off drill. Most camps provide guidelines when you register that will tell you where to go and what to do. “If you follow those instructions, all is generally good,” says Paul Krumpe, head coach of the Loyola Marymount University men’s soccer program and director of LMU Summer Soccer Camp. “If you feel that something is missing in those instructions, let the camp director know.”

You should also make sure your child knows what to expect. Communication is key, and Redeelyn Sunga, principal of Page Private School’s Hancock Park campus, suggests beginning to prepare your child as much as a month in advance. She also advises parents to share the camp’s schedule – Page hands out one weekly – with their child, “just so that they’re prepared, and it gets them excited, too.”

Your outlook matters, too, and Sunga suggests letting your kids know that you are excited about the camp they will attend.

As you’re preparing for that first day, don’t forget the basics. “Obviously, they need to get a good night’s sleep,” says Anthony Harris, athletic director at La Salle High School in Pasadena, which hosts summer athletics programs. And you’ll need to pack up the necessary gear. At La Salle, “you just have to have the right footwear, water, Gatorade, sunscreen, maybe a towel or a change of clothes,” says Harris. “Other than that, just bring a great attitude.”

Forgetting something important can really put a damper on your camper’s day. At Page, for instance, campers spend lots of time in the pool. “If they forgot the child’s swimsuit, that makes the student very upset,” Sunga says.

Once you arrive at camp, sticking around for 10 or 15 minutes to let your child acclimatize can be just fine. Counselors and junior counselors will generally step in to help break the ice and draw shy campers out of their shell. But after that, it is best to back away and let your child focus on camp.

“Parents need to be ready to let the kids go,” says Krumpe. “Hopefully they have enough trust in the camp they are sending their kids to that they are willing to drop them off and go. The younger ones tend to be clingy with Mom and Dad, and then are fine as soon as Mom and Dad leave.”

If you’ve left contact information with the camp – and you should – you’ll get a call if anything goes wrong. But if you really can’t tear yourself away, Krumpe and Harris recommend finding an out-of-sight spot where you can observe your child for awhile without the child knowing you are there. Most likely, it won’t be long before your child is drawn in to camp activities. Then you can head out and look forward to hearing about all of her or his camp adventures at pick-up time.

Can teens benefit from summer camp?

summer camp

PHOTOS COURTESY SUMMER ART ACADEMY

Younger children certainly benefit from all the summer-camp experience has to offer – and parents benefit from having a quality program for their children to experience while they work or take care of family business. But tweens and teens, though they don’t require child care, can benefit from camp as well.

Elizabeth Paravicini, director of Summer Art Academy Art Camp in Valley Village, says leadership and counselor-in-training programs, offered by many camps, can help teens build friendships and deal with common issues such as conflict resolution and bullying. “That age tends to be a little awkward sometimes,” she says. “It becomes a safe forum where they get to talk amongst their peers.”

But counselor-in-training programs also give kids some work experience. In addition to a personal workshop and leadership classes, teens in the program at Art Camp assist in two classes with younger campers and prepare all the themed activities. “They want to help others. That’s what I’ve noticed the trend is,” Paravicini says.

Some teens, though, could use a break. Three years ago, Paravicini noticed this and launched a program that lets teens just be campers. Because the camp has two sessions, teens can have both experiences in one summer.

Teens who attend camp also benefit from a chance to explore – at a crucial time. Luthern Williams, a former college consultant who is now head of New Roads School in Santa Monica, says students often begin reflecting on themselves and what they want to do in the second semester of 11th grade. That is far too late. “I think the summer gives them the opportunity to do that outside the demands and pressures of an academic environment,” he says. In summer, teens can feel more free to take risks, and even explore interests that might turn into a career.

“I think we live with a very risk-averse generation,” says Williams. “They have been pushed so much to build a resume rather than to be children and just explore. That’s what our summer programs are about, to explore.”

Even programs that have an academic focus can offer teens a break from routine, and help take the pressure off. At The Neilson Academy in Los Angeles, the vibe is so different that for many teens it’s like a break. “There’s no pressure in the summer,” says founder Linda Neilson. “They can get help whenever they need it.” Teens attending the summer session can address problems from the previous year – making up credits or raising a less-than-stellar grade – or work to prepare for the coming year.

“Every program is tailored to each student,” Neilson says. “We take care of each other.” With sessions lasting just three hours a day, teens have plenty of time for other summer fun. And because they are taking care of their academic business with plenty of support, they are relaxed enough to enjoy themselves.

During that free time, Neilson advocates finding an additional program that will help your teen explore other interests and give them a break from screen time and technology. “Staying at home is not a solution,” she says. “They’re on their phones or they’re on their iPads.”

What are some camp questions parents tend to overlook?

summer camp natoma

At Camp Natoma, instead of sleeping in cabins kids sleep outside under the stars. PHOTO COURTESY CAMP NATOMA

There are plenty of questions parents should ask when they are choosing a summer camp for their kids. Safety, of course, one issue that is top of mind. “Safety is parents’ number-one concern,” says Tiffany Cote, summer camp director at UCLA Recreation Summer Camp.

Ask about safety and other basics. The first and most important thing is to find out if the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association, and what safety policies and procedures it has in place. “How are you going to make sure your child is safe at the camp?” asks Emily Zbin, director of Camp Natoma, a sleep-away camp located west of Paso Robles.

Ask about the camp facility and who will have access during camp. Is it exclusive? Is it an area that is open to the public? Ask about the staff, their training, and how long they have worked at the camp.

Ask what your child should wear and bring to camp. Even if you’re already familiar with the camp, there will be important things you need to know. Jaclyn Aranda, director of summer camp at The Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, says many of their summer campers are students during the school year, but reminds parents that at camps run by schools, the camp experience is different from the school day.

Clothing and shoes should be camp-appropriate. “They’re there all day. They’re doing activities and running around,” says Aranda, yet many parents send campers in dressy clothes or open-toed shoes. “We don’t want anybody to have to sit out because they aren’t dressed appropriately,” she says. “There’s so many activities that we do outdoors, where flip-flops aren’t appropriate.”

summer camp Buckley

Many summer campers at The Buckley School are students during the school year, but at camps run by schools, the camp experience is different from the school day. PHOTO COURTESY THE BUCKLEY SCHOOL

If the camp day includes swimming, your child will need a towel and bathing suit – or maybe two. At UCLA’s Camp Growing Kids for ages 5-10, campers have two sessions of swimming and change back into their clothes after the morning session. This means they need a second, dry suit to change into for the afternoon swim session (Because who wants to try to convince a 5-year-old to climb into a cold, wet bathing suit?).

Food can be another issue. “Some parents are surprised that they need to provide a morning snack, a lunch and an afternoon snack,” says Cote. Even if your child’s camp provides lunch, check in to make sure about snacks, and be sure to send plenty for your child to eat. “When kids are active and running around, they get hungrier,” Aranda reminds parents.

Ask your child to join you in your camp research. If you and the kids aren’t familiar with the camp facilities and programs, be sure to ask your kids to join you in your research. “Make sure you set your kids’ expectations for what the program’s going to be like,” says Zbin. At Camp Natoma, for instance, instead of sleeping in cabins kids sleep outside under the stars. “Kids need to know that beforehand,” says Zbin. Too many surprises will make campers feel uncomfortable.

If you aren’t able to visit a camp in advance, you can use the camp website to help your child learn what to expect. “Bring your kid over and let them watch the camp videos or scroll through the pictures with you,” Zbin says.

And if other questions come up while you’re considering summer camps, or while your child is at camp, don’t keep quiet. “Always ask questions,” urges Aranda. “If there’s any concern about anything, talk to the director of your program.”

How do you know you have a good fit between camper and camp?

summer camp - Cali Camp

Cali Camp is about play, laughter and kids are making new friends and feeling comfortable with their counselors and their surroundings. PHOTO COURTESY CALI CAMP

You’ve done your homework, consulted your kids, and chosen what you hope is the perfect summer camp for them. But how do you know that your child is really enjoying the experience? It turns out that most camp directors can tell.

Kassandra Wilsey, director of Cali Camp in Topanga, knows things are going well at camp when she walks around and sees “a lot of enthusiasm.” She looks for “play, laughter and that [kids are] making new friends and feeling very comfortable with their counselors and their surroundings.”

Kathy Heraghty, owner of Destination Science – with camp locations throughout Southern California – is also looking for kids who are engaged with the camp’s science activities. “We’re looking for them to interact with silliness and songs and fun chants in between the other things we are doing,” she says, but counselors always work to make sure kids are somewhere along the spectrum of understanding the concepts. If a kid shuts down and says, “I can’t do this,” they know the kid isn’t quite on the path.

Having a variety of activities to choose from can help keep campers engaged. Got Game Sports Camp offers programs at school campuses throughout greater Los Angeles, and originated as a dedicated sports camp. But founder Korey “Coach K” Kalman says the camp broadened its range of activities to include robotics, coding and many other activities. “We aim to cater to different children,” he explains. “We are a lot more than just sports.”

summer camp - Burbank YMCA

At YMCA Camp, campers break into “huddle groups” at the end of each day to talk about their adventures. PHOTO COURTESY BURBANK YMCA

Friends can also be key to a kid’s camp experience. “We’re looking for kids who are comfortable with the kids to the left of them, to the right of them, not just the kids they came with,” says Heraghty. “Our teachers are always looking to bridge kids to new kids.” The goal is for everyone to make some new friends by the end of camp.

Changes in camper behavior can be a clue that things aren’t going well. “The easiest way to tell if a child is having fun is that there aren’t any behavior issues,” says Bryan Snodgrass, director of summer camp at the Burbank YMCA. Kids who are engaged don’t have time to act out.

Most camps train counselors to watch for behavior changes that might signal that a camper is being bullied or excluded, or that something might be wrong at home. A child who was enthusiastic about camp but suddenly seems sullen, or a child who hangs back from activities she or he had enjoyed, could be having trouble. “We talk about how important it is to be able to identify those things,” says Kalman.

“It’s really just a matter of being cognizant of those changes,” says Snodgrass, adding that YMCA counselors work to build relationships with their campers so these changes are easier to spot.

To keep things running smoothly, most camps strive for continual dialog between parent, camper and camp. “One thing that our parents love is our social media,” says Kalman, adding it allows parents to communicate with camp more easily. “It’s 2016. People can’t always pick up the phone.”

At YMCA Camp, campers break into “huddle groups” at the end of each day to talk about their adventures. Cali Camp counselors post daily to a secure Facebook page that parents can access, and take periodic surveys of campers. “We do these temperature checks around camp all throughout the summer,” says Wilsey.

If counselors at Destination Science notice a camper who isn’t “in the groove,” and there are behavior problems, they get the parent involved. “When we engage parents, we get backside information we can apply quickly,” Heraghty says. “We’ve had pretty good success.”

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