Summer day camp is a place where children can stretch their minds, exercise their bodies, develop new interests and forge lasting friendships. For young children, it is a good introduction to the camp experience. For older ones, it is a way to enjoy the activities without the overnight option. Day camp programs vary from one setting to the next and it is important to choose a camp tailored to your child’s needs. Help make the most of your child’s day camp experience by asking the right questions.
1. Consider interests. Day camps offer a host of options that include everything from one centralized activity to a variety of traditional camp fun. Talk with your child about his interests and what he would like to gain from the experience. Would he enjoy an assortment of activities or does he want to concentrate on one skill, such as soccer or art?
2. Ponder program length. Day camps range from several hours to a full day and can run from one week to an entire summer. How long your child should participate in a program will depend largely upon his age, developmental level and previous camp experience. First-time campers would do well starting in a partial- to full-week program. Experienced campers may enjoy one that runs throughout the summer. Even if your child decides to stay at camp all summer, consider allowing a few weeks break between school and camp (and vice versa) for down time.
3. Look at location. Consider the distance’s impact on the camping experience. If you choose a day camp close to home, commute time will be less and your child may already be acquainted with some of the other children. A day camp near your employer, however, would give you quick access to your child, in the event of an emergency. But if your child needs additional morning or afternoon childcare, you may want to consider a program close to your sitter.
4. Ask about staff. Find out the camper-to-counselor ratio, ideally it should be six campers to one counselor, as recommended by the American Camping Association. What experience and/or training do the counselors have? How are they selected? What is the camp’s discipline policy? Are they trained to take care of health concerns such as asthma, allergies and dispensing medicine?
5. Focus on the facility. Ask about indoor and outdoor facilities. Is there ample indoor space for children to play during inclement weather? What do they do if it rains all week? Is the outdoor equipment and grounds well maintained and safe? Are the children’s swimming skills tested before they are allowed to enter the water? Is the staff certified in lifesaving and present during water activities?
6. Investigate cost. Inquire about additional fees. Some day camps have a base price but charge extra for trips, special events and activities. If the camp you want to send your child to costs more than you can afford, find out if there is a scholarship program. Also ask about a refund policy, in the event of an illness or family emergency.
7. Arrange a pre-visit. Find out if the day camp offers an open house prior to season start up. If not, make other arrangements to introduce yourself to those who will be caring for your child. Open houses are a good time to gather information, so make sure to jot down any questions you have before leaving home. If your questions are not addressed during this time, ask to speak with someone before securing your deposit.
8. Fill out forms. Organize all relevant information concerning your child’s health and history. When it comes to medical forms, be thorough and specific. If your child was on a medication during the school year but will be taken off of it for the summer, make sure the camp is aware of this as it could cause an extreme change in behavior. Insect and food-related allergies should be listed too. Equally important is to share other concerns, such as if your family is going through a divorce or has experienced a recent death, as this may affect how your child interacts throughout the day. Remember, camps look out for both the physical and emotional needs of your child, so the more information you provide, the better equipped they will be.
You will also be asked to fill out an emergency contact form, which lists another designated individual to call if you cannot be reached in the event of an accident or illness. While it is imperative to have an appointed individual, equally important is that the person knows she has been designated as such. Every year camps contact the emergency person listed and she was not informed she was “on call.” The best advice? Check with that individual before writing the name down.
9. Peruse policies & procedures. Ask for a list of the camp’s policies, procedures and planned activities. The summer will run smoother if you and your child know what to expect and what is expected of you. Most camps have a weekly schedule so parents know what the upcoming activities are. Talk with you child about what is planned. If she cannot participate due to health reasons, make sure you (not your child) inform the camp.
In recent years, many day camps have developed strict policies about leaving technology items – cell phones, handheld games and other tech toys – at home. Their philosophy is that day camps are designed to be enriching experiences and the children should be engaging in these activities rather than playing with electronics. If restricted items are brought to camp, they may be confiscated and returned at the end of the day in hopes the child gets the message.
10. Keep the line of communication open. Talk about camp before it even starts. Reassure your child of the positive experience he will have. At the end of each camp day, find a block of uninterrupted time where you can listen as he shares his adventures. Ask what he liked about camp and if there were any things he didn’t like. If he is having a hard time articulating what happened, break it down by activities—“What crafts did you do?” “Did you play any outdoor games that involved balls or running?” “Who did you sit with at lunch?” Encourage your child to do his best and be respectful of others, and he’ll have a great time.
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.