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How to pick a summer camp for a good first time away from home

Maximize your child's first time away from home: How to pick a summer camp and avoid the stress for parents and kids.

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Some specialty camps also offer swimming and outdoor games, as a way to break up the main activity or to get everyone outside for some physical play. If a child is leaning toward a specialty camp, be sure he or she knows that most of the day will be devoted to the primary activity.

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Guest blogger

Susan Sachs Lipman is the author of "Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World," which grew out of her award-winning blog, Slow Family Online. She is the social media director for the Children & Nature Network. Susan and her family enjoy gardening, hiking, soap crafting and food canning.

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Find Out About the Camp’s Structure

Some camps schedule all activities, and others allow for free choice. When age-appropriate, discuss your child’s preferences with him or her. The right match can go a long way toward a successful camp experience.

Explore the Camp’s Setting

How rustic is the camp? Do children sleep in tents, cabins or dorms? Even with day camps, there are camps that meet in local parks and camps in which children travel daily to outdoor adventure spots or amusement parks. What kind of setting appeals to your child and fits his/her comfort level? Inquire about sleeping and dining facilities, and sports and recreational facilities, as well as the camp’s physical setting.

Try to Get a Sense of the Camp’s Philosophy

Although this may be difficult to discern without spending some time in a camp session, there are some questions you can ask that may help you figure out if a camp is a match for your child and family. These include:

  • What qualities do you look for in a camp counselor?
  • Where do campers come from?
  • What ages and genders typically attend the camp?
  • How long has the director/camp been in operation?
  • What percentage of campers usually return?
  • How are bunks or groups determined?
  • How competitive are camp activities?
  • Are campers encouraged to try new things?
  • Do many activities involve the whole camp?
  • What kind of food is served?
  • Does the camp have a religious affiliation?
  • What is the camp policy regarding electronics, spending money, medication, letters from home and parent visits, and phonecalls?

Consider the Camp’s Role Regarding your Child’s Social-Emotional Needs

These are some questions to be considered in this area:

  • Are social needs addressed?
  • Are other special needs addressed?
  • What is done when a camper is not enjoying him/herself?

Find Out About the Camp’s Safety Record and Practices

Of course parents want to feel secure when kids are away from home or trying new activities. Here are some questions to ask regarding safety:
Is the camp ACA accredited? (This is a very important camp accreditation from the American Camp Association, which holds high standards for safety and programming. Note that there are fine non-ACA-accredited camps as well.)

  • Is instruction given in swimming and other new activities?
  • Are swim instructors certified?
  • What is the ratio of staff to campers? (According to the ACA, there should be one counselor for every 5-10 campers, depending on ages and needs.)
  • What is the training for counselors?
  • What are the ages of the counselors?
  • How does the camp ensure safety?
  • What is the general emergency plan?
  • Are there nearby medical facilities?
  • Do staff members have medical/emergency training?
  • Are there outings away from the camp site and, if so, what are the arrangements for transportation, facilities, supervision, etc.?

Find Out About Practicalities

  • Are there additional costs or fees?
  • Is there a refund policy?
  • Will the director supply references?
  • Can you visit the camp in advance? (Or, if not, is there a video tour?)

Camps can offer lots of great, new experiences in fun, and sometimes beautiful, settings. Some children see the same camp friends year after year, and many grow up with fond memories of their special camp time. It can be wonderful to stick with a favorite camp or seek a new experience. The right focus in spring can help your child and family have a fun and memorable time in summer.

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