Summer day camp is a place where children can learn new skills, acquire new interests and make new friends. But there is no one-size-fits-all camp. To find the right day camp for your child, consider these 10 tips.
1 Know Your Child
Talk it over and narrow the options based on your child’s interests and needs. Find out what he wants from the experience and together make a list of things he might like to do. Also consider his developmental needs. Is he ready for an all-day program? Would he be more comfortable in an intimate versus large group setting? If your child likes sports but has shown some interest in drama or art, encourage him to step out of his comfort zone. It may just spark a new passion.
2 Gather Information
Attend camp fairs and browse San Diego Family Magazine's Summer Camp Guide. Note programs of interest and comparison shop. Call each prospective camp to inquire about philosophy, daily schedule and other topics important to you. Invest this time up front and you may find a camp to stay with for several years.
3 Traditional or Specialty
When choosing between a traditional versus specialty program, consider this rule of thumb: The younger the child, the more varied the activities should be. Children between the ages of 7 and 11 thrive in a setting where they can sample a variety of subjects. As their attention span develops, they may want to focus on a single activity. If you go with a specialty camp, find out how intense the program is. It may be labeled “specialty” but only have a one- or two-hour component with other activities scheduled in.
4 Look at Location
Find a camp close to your job or home to shorten travel time and allow quick access to your child in an emergency. Convenience, however, shouldn’t be the primary factor. Balance your decision with what the camp has to offer. If your child really wants to participate in a given camp, consider your willingness to drive out of the way. Or see if there’s a neighbor you can carpool with.
5 Ponder Program Length
Program length should be viewed in light of the family and child’s needs. If your schedule dictates him having to stay a full day ask about before- and after-care. If he’s younger, find out about naps or quiet times. It’s also important to find out who runs the before- and after-care program. Is it the same staff your child has all day? What activities will he be engaged in during this time?
6 Scout Out Schedules
Before enrolling, ask about the daily schedule. What themes and related activities are planned? Will there be field trips or special guests coming in to keep camp exciting and extend theme-based learning? Will your camper receive any reading, writing or math instruction or practice? Done properly, kids can enjoy games and activities that keep those academic skills sharp. Also look at what facilities and programs the camp has to offer and inquire how often your child will participate in them. Don’t assume that just because there’s a pool, ropes course or archery range on the brochure it will be part of your child’s session. Ask to make sure.
7 Ask About Staff
Find out how staff and counselors are chosen, their experience, background, age and training, as well as counselor-to-camper ratio. The American Camping Association’s day camp recommendations are 1:6 for ages 4 to 5, 1:8 for ages 6 to 8, 1:10 for ages 9 to 14 and 1:12 for ages 15 to 18. Also ask how counselors are screened and what background checks are done. If you’re going with a specialty camp, what kind of in-depth knowledge and experience do the counselors have teaching the subject?
8 Consider Costs
Compare program costs and find out what the fees actually cover. Some camps include field trips, materials, meals and T-shirts in their fee; for others, these are add-ons. Also find out the camp’s refund policy and rules regarding transfer of weeks if your plans change or your child gets sick. If the camp is out of your price range, is a scholarship or financial assistance available?
9 Explore Open Houses
Visiting an open house can get children acclimated to the environment and give you a better perspective of the staff, facilities and activities. Is the staff smiling and friendly? Do they immediately bond with the children? Are the facilities well maintained, clean, and free of safety hazards?
10 Peruse Policies
Eliminate future problems by reviewing the camp’s policies and procedures before you sign up. You don’t want to learn after the fact that there’s a no cell phone rule or that drop-off and pick-up policies differ from what you thought. Share pertinent information with your child, too, so there are no surprises on his end.
Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Day Camp
- Are you licensed by the state or do you hold an accreditation or certification? What exactly does that credential mean?
- What kind of background, training and experience do counselors and staff have? How are they chosen?
- What is the counselor-to-camper ratio? How many students are in each group? How often are the groups together?
- What kind of medical response is on hand? Camp nurse or CPR and first-aid certified staff?
- Are you able to administer medicine?
- What is a typical day like?
- How often will the campers take field trips? Where do they go? Is there increased supervision in populated setting?
- What other amenities are available to campers, such as a pool, ice arena, farm, hiking trails, ropes course, archery, etc.? How often will my child be able to participate in these?
- Are lunches and/or snacks provided?
- Do you offer before- and after-care? Will it be the same staff caring for my child?
- How often are the facilities cleaned?
- What alternative plans do you have for inclement weather?
- What does the camp fee cover? What extra fees will I be required to pay?
- Do you offer scholarships or financial aid?
- What is the refund policy and rule regarding transfer of weeks?
- What is your policy regarding cell phones and other technology items brought to camp?
- How do you handle homesickness and other adjustment issues?
- What is the discipline policy?
- How do you handle bullying?
- What are your drop-off and pick-up policies?
- Will you provide references?
Denise Morrison Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.