Once you've narrowed down your list of possibilities, the real detective work begins. Don't make your decision solely on a glossy brochure, a slick video, or a bubbly camp representative. Check it out for yourself.
Obviously, you can't see an overnight summer camp in action during the winter, but you can find out a lot about the facility and the summer camp activities by asking the right questions of parents whose children have gone there and of the camp director. The Questionnaire for Evaluating Summer Camps will help in your search.
One question to ask is whether the camp you're considering is accredited by the American Camping Association. To earn accreditation, a camp must comply with up to 300 industry standards for health, safety, and program quality. These standards address everything—from the director's background to how foods are prepared and stored. There are additional standards applied to aquatics, horseback riding, travel, and trip programs. At least once every three years, a team of trained ACA representatives observes the camp in session to verify compliance.
Of the approximately 8,500 camps, only about 2,200 have earned ACA accreditation. Those numbers include more resident than day camps. Lack of accreditation does not mean a camp isn't good, but if a camp isn't accredited, it's worth asking why. It might not be as important to you if the camp you are considering is in your community and you can check it out for yourself. If you are sending your child to a resident camp for part of the summer, it's reassuring to know that it meets certain standards.
Key to your child's safety at camp are the qualifications and experience of the staff.
Find out the camp director's educational and career background. ACA suggests he or she have earned at least a bachelor's degree, have completed in-service training within the last three years, and have at least 16 weeks of camp administrative experience.
Ask the average age of the counselors and what certification and experience they have. Many camps hire high school and college students. ACA recommends that at least 80 percent of the program counselors be 18 or older. Any counselor under 18 should be at least two years older than the camper she is supervising.
It's especially important to find out the qualifications of staff in charge of high-risk areas—the lifeguards, horseback riding instructors, and athletic coaches, for example. They should have specific training in their specialties and be well-versed in appropriate safety measures.
Find out what percentage are returning counselors from past years. Some staff turnover is natural, but the ACA reports that at most camps, between 40 and 60 percent of the staff return each year. If the rate is lower, ask why.
Inquire about the camp's procedure for background checks as well as the training and supervision the counselors receive. Camp policies to protect children from physical or sexual abuse generally dictate that counselors work in pairs.
Ask about the ratio of counselors to campers. It should be based on the ages of the campers and their special needs. (Campers with disabilities, for example, need more staff.)
Here are the ACA recommendations for resident camps:
- One staffer for every six campers ages 6 to 8.
- One staffer for every eight campers ages 9 to 14.
- One staffer for every 10 campers ages 15 to 18.
For day campers the recommendations are:
- One staffer for every eight campers ages 6 to 8.
- One staffer for every 10 campers ages 9 to 14.
- One staffer for every 12 campers ages 15 to 18.