Camp directors offer their top tips for making the most of your child’s summer camp experience
By Melanie Gaball
An overwhelming number of Southern California kids attend some sort of summer camp, and for many families these programs represent a major investment of time and money. With specialty programs dedicated to the arts, sports, science and other topics; a wide range of day camps, and immersive sleep-away experiences available, the potential for learning, fun and a truly memorable summer is great.
So how do you make sure that’s what your child has? Four local camp directors offer up their best advice.
First and foremost, don’t delay. “Parents should start looking into camps at least a few months early, so they have time to visit or talk to staff,” says Katya Bozzi, Executive Director of STAR Education, which offers summer programs at schools across Southern California. Camps fill up fast, so if you have specific scheduling needs, or hope to send your child along with a group of friends, it’s better to sign up early.
Start by talking to your children to find out what type of camp they are interested in – and ready for – whether it’s a specialty day camp, something that offers a variety of activities, or a sleep-away camp, says Erica Jameson, third-generation owner of Jameson Ranch Camp, a sleep-away program in the northern Sierras.
For many working parents, enrolling their children in some kind of summer camp is a logistical necessity, rather than just a chance for fun. So instead of asking your child whether they want to go to summer camp and giving them the opportunity to say no, begin by asking what type of summer camp they want to go to. “Start by talking to your child about how much fun you had at camp when you were a kid,” says Linda Stevenson, director of Camp Funtime in Encino.
If you can, visit prospective camp choices the summer before you plan on sending your child, and talk with the camp directors rather than just someone in the camp office. “See the camp in action,” says Ryan Rosen, director of Camp Kinneret Summer Day Camp in Agoura Hills. “What are the staff doing? Are they involved with the campers or sitting on the side watching? Do they have their phone in their hands? Are the staff smiling?” If you can’t visit the summer before, Rosen suggests at least attending an open house and talking to the staff.
Ask whether the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association, a 100-year-old national organization of camp professionals. “Camps that are accredited have to meet standards in programming, operations and safety every three years,” says Stevenson. “If a camp isn’t accredited, it doesn’t mean they aren’t going to be a good camp, but if it is, it means it’s going to be one of the best.”
Also, ask about the staff’s training (especially if the camp offers specialty classes such as cooking or gymnastics), whether the camp conducts staff background checks, and whether the camp has sample lesson plans or lists of activities you can look over with your child, so you know what the structure of the day looks like.
“When interviewing the camp director, ask ‘What is your camp philosophy?’ This question will help determine if a camp is simply a glorified daycare or if it is truly focused on childhood development,” says Rosen.
Once you have selected a camp, help your children make a list of things they will need to bring with them, and let them pick out their own stuff when shopping – even for sunscreen – so they feel included in the process, suggests Bozzi.
Be sure to include a reusable water bottle on that list, and give your child plenty of reminders to drink. Whether they are indoors or out, kids need to stay hydrated, and staff members might not always be focused on reminding them.
Another list to make is one of challenging situations that might come up at camp, and ways your child might handle them. “Give them options on how to react in different situations,” says Bozzi, “so they are not traumatized when something embarrassing happens.”
If you are considering a sleep-away camp for children who haven’t spent much time away from home, help them prepare by sending them to stay with family or friends for a few days to see how they do.
It can also help to talk with your child about homesickness. “Tell them it is completely normal to feel that way,” says Jameson. “Talk to the camp about their policies on calling home, and brainstorm with the child how they can communicate with their parents while they are gone. It could be to have a letter delivered every week.”
Jameson says the average age for kids to start going to sleep-away camp is between 8 and 10, but every child is different.
Even kids who are only going to day camp might be anxious if camp is a new experience. “They may be nervous to try something new, especially in a group setting when some of the kids are more advanced,” says Bozzi. “Parents can remind them that summer camp is for learning, and it is OK if they aren’t the best right away. They can get better with practice.”
The most important thing parents can do to prevent a problem at camp is to let camp staff know beforehand if their child has any behavioral, emotional, social or physical issues, no matter how small.
“The more straightforward parents are with camp personnel about any concerns, the better,” says Jameson. “Even if the problem seems uncomfortable to talk about, such as bed-wetting or emotional outbursts, most camps will handle the responsibilities with discretion and grace.” And if the issue is medical, all accredited sleep-away camps are required to have medical staff on site, while day camps must have a staff member trained in first aid and CPR, and prearranged phone access to a doctor or nurse.
Many parents who withhold information don’t want to come across as overprotective, but sharing is always best.
“The more information we have, the better, and parents should be in constant communications with counselors throughout camp,” says Stevenson. “I love when parents are open and honest with me and take a moment to introduce their child on the first day of camp. Even if it is just that your child is shy or has trouble making friends, that is something we should know. ”
Parents can also ask about visitation during camp. Some camps, such as Camp Kinneret, allow parents to show up whenever they’d like to visit, while others require an appointment, says Rosen.
If your child learned something at camp that they loved or that piqued their interest, encourage them to continue it after camp is over.
“Consistency is good for kids, and once they try something they like, it’s easy to continue to do it,” says Bozzi. “ You can go online to look for ways to advance their skills in almost anything, and this can become a fun parent-and-child activity.”
Bozzi suggests printing out recipes to make together if a child enjoyed a cooking class from camp, or learning dances together if they enjoyed dance.
Parents can also see whether their child’s school offers programs in their area of interest – or whether they would be willing to start one. “Many schools get their best ideas from parents,” says Bozzi.
And if your child made a new BFF who doesn’t live nearby, help them stay connected.
“Most camps have Facebook groups that are monitored by the camp staff, and allow campers to keep in touch,” says Jameson. “It’s good for kids to know that camp is still there even if it’s not camp season.”
Here are some questions Ryan Rosen, director of Camp Kinneret, suggests asking directors of camps you are considering for your child. He focused on questions he believes parents might not think to ask.
Does the camp group your child with the same children each day or with new children? Are they grouped by age, grade and/or gender?
Does the counselor review your child’s health form?
Do campers have the same counselor each day?
How does the camp hire camp staff, and who is conducting the interviews?
How are camp counselors trained? How are they supported throughout the summer?
Are parents informed when issues come up? Who makes the call?
Is transportation included in the camp fees, or is it extra?
If the camp provides transportation, is the bus ride just transportation, or is it an extension of the camp experience? Is it just the bus driver with the campers? Who are the drivers?