Summer sleepaway camp can be an exciting and transformative childhood experience if you pick the right camp. I had a chat with Iain McClements, a director of Camp Twin Creeks for almost 2 decades, to get the insiders perspective on how parents can be best equipped to choose a summer sleepaway camp that is perfect for their family. Navigating this process, as parents, it is important to be aware of our fears and anxieties so we do not pass them along to our children. The best way to alleviate these fears or anxieties is to find a camp community that shares your values and a camp administration that puts you at ease. But how do you do that? Asking camp administration the right questions will help parents to have a solid understanding of the camper experience and pick a camp with confidence.
Culture & Community
It is easy to get caught up in the details of the daily camp routine when looking for a camp, but start with the big picture. The camp culture and community will play a huge a role in shaping the experiences your camper will have. The culture and community start at the top. The passion, longevity and dedication of camp administration is a good indicator of the quality of camp leadership. Make sure you have a chance to meet the camp director and administration and ask them about their camp. When staff are well cared for and respected they are better at providing the same level of care and consideration to campers. Camp is essentially big kids looking after little kids. These questions for directors and administrators will help you find a camp with a camp culture and community that share your values:
- Describe your camp population?
- Is there diversity? How do you promote and embrace diversity?
- How do you describe your staff?
- What rewards, benefits and support are provided for the counselors?
- How long has the current administration been with the camp?
- Will administrators know my kid personally?
Safety & Welfare
Ensuring that your children are physically and emotionally safe is everyone’s top priority. Physical safety is achieved through risk assessments. Camps that participate in the Standards conducted by the American Camp Association (ACA) are voluntarily ensuring a high quality of safety, often greater than federal and state guidelines. These Standards cover: Transportation, Site Management and Food Service, Program Design, Aquatics, Human Resources, Trip and Travel, and Health and Wellness. Outsourcing training and construction of activities shows the administration’s dedication to providing the highest level of physical safety.
The emotional safety of campers is often parents number one concern, understandably so. Counselors are the people entrusted with the daily care of campers. A thorough hiring process should include interviews, reference checks, background checks and video calls (camps can easily use technology to see prospective counselors). The most important counselor qualification is being a good person. It is great to have people who are skilled in the different camp activities, but their character will have a bigger lasting impact on campers. You can get a good feel for a camp’s safety practices by reading the camp policies regarding safety and asking these questions:
- Who trains the staff?
- How do you train staff?
- Who builds adventure activities such as ropes course and water front?
- How are the rules and guidelines established for staff?
- How do you ensure campers understand expectations?
- What is the oversight of counselors to prevent the counselor value system superseding the camp value system?
- What is the policy for camper conflicts?
We live in a time where we have almost instantaneous access to our children most of the time. Summer sleep away camp offers parents and children a chance to become more independent. The stress of being away from home builds resilience. Everyone feels homesick sometimes. Parents can prepare children for this by talking about being sad or being homesick as a when not an if. Understanding when phone calls occur and how to best offer support to campers on calls is a recipe for a successful camp experience. The more prepared for the stresses of being on their own children are, the more likely they will thrive.
The communication is not just for campers. Parents who struggle with letting children go are encouraged to build up a relationship with the administration as a basis of trust for an open and transparent communication about homesick kids. Most camps to do not offer instant access, however many post daily videos and pictures. Camp policies on camper communication will address many of the specific questions, but these questions can help parents to gain a better understanding of the administration’s thoughts on homesickness and parent communication:
- What are the guidelines for communication?
- What flexibility on communication do you offer parents?
- How transparent and proactive will the administration be about addressing the homesickness?
- How do you help parents prepare for camp?
Facilities & Schedule
The physical location, facilities and schedule can influence the type of camp experience your family has. Parents should consider the distance of camp from home from a practical point of view. Many facilities are a couple hours from major cities making it impractical to visit before registering. Look for a camp that offers virtual tours, local informational sessions or meetings with camp administrators.
The activities offered at camp in many ways matter less than the experiences kids get from being away gaining independence and confidence. Ensuring there is one familiar activity your camper enjoys will give them something to look forward to and help them feel comfortable. A flexible schedule is a plus. A summer camp experience with unstructured play time allows campers to gain social skills.
Parents often inquire about the camper to counselor ratio. Ensure that you specify the ratio in the cabin so it adequately describes the sleeping arrangements. Cabins with one big room offers a more safe and transparent environment. Most of the accidents that happen at camp happen in the cabin. Ensure that campers are adequately supervised in cabins.
When it comes to food, options is the key. Camps should offer kid friendly food and a structure that promotes awareness and control of what campers are eating. Children may not speak up if they do not like anything and are not eating so having a system in place to prevent those campers from being overlooked is key. Questions you can ask to get a better feel for the facilities and schedule:
- Do campers sleep in one big room or are there separate rooms for counselors?
- If counselors have their own rooms are campers allowed in their rooms?
- Are counselors required to remain in the same physical space as campers?
- What beverages are served at meals?
- Do campers have access to snacks?
Last, but certainly not least are the benefits of camp. Find a camp that helps your child become the adult you want them to be. As parents we want our children to be independent, kind and resilient. Camp can allow your children to make the journey to their best self. The camp environment offers different scenarios that play to different people’s strengths allowing children to find themselves in new roles and to stretch to meet the needs of these new situations. Camp allows leaders to be followers and followers to be leaders. Kids learn about themselves and others; get practice coping and making decisions; and improve social skills. Camp is also filled with nature appreciation moments which teaching campers to see the world through nature eyes. All the benefits from camp carry over to home and school as children learn to contribute to a group, be brave, be independent and to face social challenges. No matter what camp you choose or how long they attend, children benefit from camp. Having an amazing camp experience comes down to relationships built on trust so give the camp administration a chance to showcase their passion and ask them:
- Why is this camp right for my family?