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Choosing the right
summer camp for a child under the age of 5 is similar to
choosing a preschool program. A day camp for preschoolers
should focus on play and emotional security. Camp activities
should help a young child develop social skills and build
self-esteem. Counselors at a day camp for the young child
must be extremely compassionate while understanding
separation anxiety. Staff's skills in dealing with
separation anxiety is a good indication of their overall
skill with young children. Many programs hire preschool
teachers as supervisors or head counselors for this age
group. If you child has already attended preschool, he or
she may adapt more readily to the day camp
Adventures Near Your
camp is a perfect introduction to the camp
experience for the younger child, but it can also
be a good choice for an older camper who isn't
ready for, or is uninterested in sleepaway camp. In
a good program, children learn within the context
of play. An older day camper participates in many
of the same activities as campers in an overnight
program, but with the comfort of returning home at
night. Finding the right day camp program for your
child takes time and effort, but is worth it when
your child returns home each night with smiles and
exciting tales of the day.
Full Day or a
Competition should be minimal in a day camp
program for young children. In games, fun is
emphasized above winning. Counselors are comforting
and nurturing, and books, toys, games, and
equipment should be age and size appropriate. A day
camp that accepts a wide age range of children
will, ideally, separate the younger and the older
children, since younger children can be intimidated
in the presence of older children. A good day camp
program should include:
- An opportunity for free
play, where a child can choose which activity he
or she wants.
- Art projects tailored to
meet small motor development with the emphasis
- Playground time
- If swimming lessons are
offered, they are taught by instructors (red
cross) with experience working with
When choosing the daily length of the
program, consider your schedule along with the energy level
of your child. Include the length of the bus ride in your
considerations. A full-day program generally begins at 9
a.m. and ends at 3 p.m., but bus time can add up to two
hours to the length of the day. A half day program generally
ends at noon or 1 p.m. You may want to start with a half-day
program, and increase the length as your child gets older.
Even if you have a child who is constantly on the go, don't
underestimate how demanding a full day of day camp can be,
both physically, and psychologically. A young child at camp
must separate from their parents, share adult attention and
materials, focus on new things, and interact with others.
Because of this, many preschoolers who have given up daily
naps long ago come home from day camp and need a nap or a
quiet resting time in the afternoon. If you select a
full-day program, ask about rest periods or nap-time built
into the program. Many camps have a quiet time after lunch
for children to rest, nap, or play quietly.
Older Camper-over 6
There is generally less worry about separation issues with
older children, but keep in mind that your older child will
probably be nervous about starting a new program with other
children. By age six or seven, most children are used to
being in school all day and away from home. Though they may
not be ready for a sleepaway camp, a full day program is
the Right Day Camp
Often, when choosing a day camp you must
visit, observe, and evaluate both what you see and
what you don't see. Further, some of your
evaluation will be on your best instincts about the
people you meet and where you feel your child will
fit in. Some good ways to find camps in your area
Ideally, you should start your search a
full year before you plan to enroll your child.
This way, you can visit and observe day camps while
they are in session. The search process helps you
focus on what you think is important in a day camp
program. With more time to search, you give
yourself the largest number of choices.
Whether to take your child along when you visit
camps is a matter of judgment. If you have a preschooler,
it's probably better to visit alone, but if your child is
over the age of five, then take him or her along if
possible. Pay attention to how the camp director involves
your child in the visit. A good director should pay
attention to your child's opinions and questions, and should
respect and enjoy kids.
Call ahead for an appointment to visit. The staff may not
have time to show you the camp if you show up unexpectedly.
When you call, you can get some of your basic questions
answered. Some good things to ask
- How long has the camp been in
business? &endash; This gives you an idea of the
stability and strength of the program.
- Who sponsors the camp? &endash; Is it
privately owned, sponsored by a non-profit, religiously
affiliated, or run by the town or county?
- How many children attend the camp?
&endash; You also may want to know how many children in
each age group, how groups are organized, and whether the
number of girls and boys is equal. Are the groups coed or
- What is the ratio of counselors to
children? &endash; For preschoolers, you'll want to see
small groups, about one counselor for every six children.
For older children, the American Camp Association
recommends a counselor to camper ratio of 1 to 8 for six
to eight year olds, 1 to 10 for nine to fourteen year
olds, and 1 to 12 for fifteen to eighteen year olds. Of
course a higher ratio generally means more one on one
with the staff.
- Is the camp accredited? &endash; The
American Camp Association is an independent organization
that accredits summer camps based on standards for
health, safety, and program quality. Accreditation is
voluntary, and only about 25 percent of day camps choose
to go through the process. Even if a camp is accredited,
you must make sure that it's the right program for your
child, or you may find that a non-accredited camp meets
all health and safety requirements, and is also a good
fit for your camper.
- Does the camp provide marketing
materials? &endash; Ask that the camp mail any brochures,
pamphlets, or videos that they can mail for you to review
before the visit.
Narrowing the Field
Once you've made a list of potential camps, you must
determine which ones meet your criteria. You should consider
the following issues when evaluating a camp.
The location of the camp may or may not be
important to you. Some parents may want a program
close to home, while others may prefer a program a
little bit farther away to provide environmental
contrast for their child. You may prefer a camp
- Near Home &endash; A camp
near home can mean less rushing in the morning,
and make it more likely that your child will see
familiar faces at camp.
- Near Work &endash; If the
camp is near work, you can be closer to your
child in case of an emergency, and after camp
childcare may be located close by.
- Near Child Care &endash; A
camp that is located close to your baby-sitter
may be most convenient for you.
- At a Distance &endash; You
may find that a certain program is so excellent
that some travel is worth it, or you may want
your child to attend camp in a different
environment where they will met children from a
variety of places.
Staff members are the essence of a good program. If
at all possible try to see camp while campers and staff are
in action. This way your not just hearing a story but you
get to see it as well. You want to inquire
- The credentials of the director,
counselors, specialists, and staff &endash; Staff should
be experienced and clearly enjoy being around children.
Senior staff should have experience running a camp and
working with children. Specialists should not only be
proficient in their area, but also experienced in
- Who on staff is certified in CPR and
First Aid? &endash; At least several of the staff members
should have this training.
- How does the camp screen it's staff?
&endash; Ask about reference and criminal background
- How many of the staff are returning
from the previous year? How many are former campers?
&endash; Staff retention is a sign of a good
- How long has the director been in the
position? &endash; The director sets the tone for the
program and should believe in and be able to articulate
the camp's philosophy.
- How do the counselors handle
transitions? Moving from one activity to another
can be hard for children. Children can dawdle,
how well do the counselors keep the group
- Do the counselors respect
campers? Campers should never be the butt of a
joke. Counselors should be nurturing,
thoughtful, and fair, with an age-appropriate
sense of humor.
- Do the counselors raise
their voices frequently? If counselors have to
raise their voices a lot, it may be a sign that
they don't have control.
- How do the counselors handle
aggression and discipline among the children? A
good counselor should keep an eye on situations
that could be dangerous, and should avoid
situations that would likely cause
- Do counselors give frequent,
When you observe a day camp, make sure that both
boys and girls are given both equal access and encouragement
to try all the activities. Make sure that girls are
encouraged to try and excel in team sports and that boys are
encouraged to try and excel at craft areas like jewelry
making or trying dance.
When you visit a camp, keep in mind that
the children are the best indicators of whether a
program is working. Pay attention and
- Do the children seem happy?
Are they busy and engaged in their
- Is there an underlying sense
- If the group is noisy, are
they still under control? Do the children
interact well with each other?
- Are there any children who
seem isolated? What do the counselors do to
- How diverse are the
- Will your camper already
know some of these children?
- Does it appear that the
children are supporting each other?
Even under strong safety
standards and supervision, children can still get
sick and hurt at camp. Make sure to ask about the
medical facilities and staff. You should
- Is there a full-time nurse
on staff or do they use an health
- Are medical exams and
- Does the nurse check campers
for head lice?
- Is the nurse qualified to
- What is the camp policy in
medical emergencies? Is there a designated
hospital? How are children transported to
- Are counselors trained to
handle minor issues such as bumps, bruises,
scrapes, and cuts?
- What are the camp rules for
keeping a sick child home?
Space and cost often affect the number and
variety of activities that are offered at any camp.
Ask to see a sample schedule of a typical camp day.
Some camps offer a dazzling array of activities.
Yet, don't be dazzled. Day camps should offer a
nice array of general activities. You want to
- Are all activities open to
all age groups? If not why?
- How often can a child take a
- Does the camp insist that
all campers try all activities?
- Are there different levels
of skill in sports? How are teams
- Are there any inter-camp
(with other camps) competitions?
- Are the activities
sufficiently challenging as the camper gets
older? Is there room to grow, or with the older
camper get bored after attending for several
It is important that when you go to the
camp you look at their facilities, both the indoors
and outdoors. Be sure to note the overall
appearance and how the facilities are
There are many things to look for.
Every day camp should have many
opportunities for campers to exercise their large
motor muscles. For preschoolers, a day camp should
have an playground. You should look for:
- Playgrounds should have
enough room for all to play. Some text recommend
a minimum of 75 square feet per
- The surface under the
equipment should be impact absorbing. Filled
materials such as sand, wood chips, or pea
gravel that are 9-12 inches deep, or synthetic
foam tiles or rubber mats made for playground
use are safe.
- For preschoolers, equipment
should be no more than five feet high and
surrounded by a six to eight foot perimeter to
allow children to descend safely.
- Equipment should be well
maintained. Check for splinters or loose
- Sandboxes should be covered
after use to avoid animal droppings.
- Playing fields should be
level and free of rocks.
The Waterfront or Pool
Water safety is one of the most important camp
concerns. You should look for:
- An experienced waterfront
staff committed to safety with Red Cross
- Children should be tested
for swimming skill at the beginning of camp. If
there are swimming lessons, Red Cross swimming
goals should be set for each camper.
- Non-swimmers should be
clearly identified to lifeguards and all
swimmers should only be allowed in to the water
depth appropriate for their skill
- he pool or waterfront
swimming area should be large enough for the
children to swim easily without bumping into
- If there is only one pool,
it should have varying segregated depths to
accommodate all levels of swimmers.
- At a waterfront, there
should be separate and clearly marked areas for
swimming, boating, water skiing, and
- There should be a water
buddy policy (or something similar)for swimming
sessions and children should be taught water
- There should be counselors
supervising free swims both in and out of the
water in addition to lifeguards.
- Life jackets should always
be worn for boating, sailing and water
Some camps will provide lunch and snacks,
while at others, campers bring their own. You need
to decide which is best for you. Ask about a
typical menu and whether a staple like peanut
butter is always available as a substitute. Ask
when snacks are offered and what they typically
consist of. When and where do they eat? How is it
staffed? If campers bring their own lunches, is
refrigeration provided to avoid spoilage? If your
child has food allergies, its important see how the
camp may deal with this.
There should be a large indoor space for
children to play in case of inclement weather. Ask
the director about plans for rainy days. Make sure
that in the case that it rains for a week straight,
children are not spending all their time watching
A camp's Arts and Crafts program gives a
clear insight into the camp's philosophy. Is the
camp interested in product or process? It's ok for
children to use the same materials, but each child
should be able to choose which and how much of the
materials to use. Ask about the range of typical
craft projects, and whether there is adequate
equipment and supplies so that more than one child
can participate at a time. Are goals set and is the
activity led by someone with credentials? Ask if
your camp has additional cost for special
Safety protocols need to be in place. You
should ask about:
What are the arrival and
dismissal plans? Make sure that children are
supervised when they are dropped off and picked up,
and that they are protected from the heightened
traffic levels at this time.
You want to know that your child will be safe
on the camp bus. If the camp you choose provides
transportation, you should inquire
- What kind of vehicles are
- Who drives the bus/van? How
are they certified?
- How are the vehicles marked
so that children can distinguish them from
- What kind of safety
procedures make sure that the camper is safe
once he or she disembarks the bus?
- Is there a counselor on
board as well as the driver?
- How long is the bus trip,
including all of the pickups?
- Are there seat belts for
each child and does a counselor monitor that
they are worn?
- How long will the bus driver
wait in the morning before leaving?
- Do they pick up in a central
location or at your front door?
If the camp is in an urban area, different
safety strategies should be in place. Make sure the
camp's plan is safe and appropriate for its'
location. While the camp should have an open-door
policy for parents allowing you to visit, the camp
should have a procedure for screening visitors and
keeping out strangers. Things to ask about
- Do all visitors have to
check in at the main office? Does each visitor
wear an identifying badge?
- Is there a procedure to
admit and screen visitors?
- Are there working fire
alarms, fire extinguishers, and emergency lights
in each building?
- Does the camp hold fire
drills with the children?
- Can all buildings be easily
Regardless of who runs the day
camp program you should make sure they are A.C.A.
Accredited. The ACA is an independent association
that is responsible for the accrediting of summer
camp programs. Of the 1000's of camps in existence
less than 25% meet the rigid standards
verifies that a camp has complied with up to 300
standards for health, safety, and program quality,
which are recognized by courts of law and
ACA-accreditation standards cover all
aspects of camp operation from site/food service
and health care to management and staffing.
The American Camp Association collaborates
with experts from The American Academy of
Pediatrics, the American Red Cross, and other youth
service agencies to assure that current practices
at ACA-accredited camps reflect the most
up-to-date, research-based standards in camp
Accreditation is a parent's best evidence of
a camp's commitment to health and safety.
ACA accreditation assures parents that the
camp has had a regular, independent safety audit
that goes beyond regulations in most states.
Parents can (and should) verify the
accreditation status of any camp at any time. This
may be accomplished through ACA's Web site at
www.ACAcamps.org (Click on Find A Camp!) or by
When choosing a camp, you must consider if
you can afford it. Scholarships are limited, but
camps sponsored by nonprofit organizations may
offer some form of assistance. Ask for a breakdown
of fees, and whether transportation, lunch, and
uniforms are included. Inquire about discounts for
enrolling your child for the entire summer or if
siblings are also enrolled. Some families have also
been able to trade service's in exchange for
a reduced or eliminated camp fee for their
children. Parents may be able to work as nurses or
office staff in exchange for their children camp
tuition. Keep in mind that more expensive does not
necessarily seem better, but if a camp is
considerably cheaper than others, you want to know
where they are cutting costs.
Time to Call
Once you've selected a program, check
references. Ask the camp director for the names and
phone numbers of several families that have
children in the program. When you call, ask them
about their opinion of the camp program and
personnel, any problems they or their child
encountered, and how the director handled any
issues that arose during the season. If your camp
provides transportation, ask for an evaluation of
the vehicles and drivers as well. Remember, you
want the camp director to be on your team with your
If your child didn't go with you on your
initial visit, be sure to visit before camp starts
to give your child a feel for the camp to make
opening day a little bit easier. On opening day,
wait for the bus with your child, and make sure
that he or she is settled. Though there may be
tears for the younger camper, assure him or her
that you will be waiting for him or her to return.
If you are dropping your child off at camp on
opening day, make sure to accompany him or her
directly to a counselor or other staff member.
Introduce yourself and your child to the counselor
Don't hesitate to call the director if
there is a problem at camp or at home. The more
information a camp has, the easier it will be for
them to help your child. If there is a situation at
home, let the camp know so that they can help your
child to adjust at camp. If there is a problem at
camp, you should notify the counselors and the
director. If your child's problem is with a
counselor or specialist, contact the director. Ask
the director to investigate and then report back to
Once camp has started, you'll want to hear all about
the day's activities from your child when he or she returns
home. Make it clear to your child that you are genuinely
interested in what they did, and you want to hear about the
good and the bad parts. However, keep in mind that your
child may seem reluctant to talk. Consider these
- Out of sight, out of mind &endash;
Kids often just don't keep the memory of the day's events
clear and in focus.
- Here and now &endash; Children tend
to focus on more immediate concerns rather than the
- Language skills &endash; While some
children are very articulate, others may still have
difficulty organizing and expressing their
- Too much to tell &endash; Sometimes,
the day is so full that it's hard for a child to single
out one thing and talk about it, or they may be so
overwhelmed by how much they want to tell you that words
tumble out incoherently.
- Processing what's happening &endash;
Sometimes young children need time to understand what an
experience means before they can talk about
To make your conversations about camp
smoother, follow these tips:
- Understand the basics &endash; If you
understand the normal camp schedule, you can ask specific
questions to help your child focus.
- Set the stage &endash; Have a block
of uninterrupted time to talk about what is happening in
your child's life.
- Work together &endash; Doing a chore
with your child may spark conversation.
- Riding in the car &endash; Being
alone in the car together is another good time for
- Be specific &endash; Ask precise
questions to help your child focus.
- Get to know the other kids &endash;
If you can put faces to names, you'll know who your child
is referring to in conversation.
- Wait for an answer &endash; Don't be
uncomfortable with silence. Give your child a few moments
to organize his or her thoughts.
- Model it &endash; Talk to your child
about your day
Put your child and the situation into
perspective, some children tend to be quieter, while others
are chattier. What is really important is that your child
feels that she can talk to you when she needs to.