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ROAD & TRAVEL Travel Advice: How to Choose a Summer Camp

How to Choose an Appropriate Summer Camp for Kids

Each summer is a once-in-a-lifetime part of growing up. The summer a child is nine years old old just isn't the same as the summer he or she is ten. And what interests a teen at 15 isn't the same as what interests a teen at 17. Each year has its own special magic, it's own unique twist.

So, selecting a summer camp or program for your child or teen is one of the more important things you do during the year. A poor choice wastes an opportunity that can never be recaptured.

Even more unfortunate is the fact that poor camp experiences can come at impressionable years. Instead of profiting from the time spent at a camp or in a special summer program, there can be negative attitudes toward the outdoors or toward the subject in which the camp or program specialized. A sad result indeed.

"Selecting a summer camp or program for your child or teen is one of the more important things you do during the year."

But inappropriate camp selections need never happen. At least not if the parents ask questions. Asking questions, says Gordon Kaplan, past president of the American Camp Association Illinois Chapter, is the key to picking a summer opportunity your child or family will enjoy.

"There is no single right answer to any question," says Kaplan, "but there are some right questions to ask the camp director.

"First and foremost are those questions that actually deal with the camp director. The experience, ideals and goals of the director create the philosophical framework for the entire camp. He or she will be in physical and psychological control of the children during the time they are at camp."

The philosophy of the camp is probably the next most important question area. This includes such things as the number of campers that should be in every group, the composition and diversity of camper and staff population, and the individual goals set for each camper or which the campers are expected to set for themselves. Also, camp attitudes about programs and scheduling, and even the policy toward communication with the home by the staff and camper alike.

The health and safety area is also critical, warns Kaplan, and the first thing to do is find out if the camp is ACA accredited.

"Accreditation means the camp director is interested enough in the health and safety of the campers to seek the approval of an ACA visitation team, which systematically evaluates the program and operation of the camp against the Association's standards. About 15 percent of the camps fail to gain accreditation the first year they apply!"

Make a list of the activities and situations of which your child is especially fond, or those goals and skills they need to reach, of the things they genuinely fear, and the kind of social atmosphere in which they thrive. This list should be compared with the information you get from the director to see if the camp is right for your family.

But don't ask questions like "Are you able to handle children who are afraid of the dark," or "Do you see that they socialize properly," until the director describes the camp's development agenda for the children. Then see if this attitude is one that implicitly tells you that children are well-monitored at that particular camp.

Kaplan says all of the questions, including personal questions about the camp director, should be asked preferably of the director himself and not of some referral agent. If this means a visit to the camp or a phone call, it's worth it to maximize the potential of the camp experience.

There may be no single right answer to the questions you ask a director about the camp or summer program, but there is only one right answer to the questions you should ask yourself after meeting him or her.

"Ask yourself if the answers you received -- and the personality of the director -- made you feel comfortable about having your child or family attend the camp," suggests Kaplan. "If the answer you give yourself isn't a resounding YES, go on to the next interview."

When you meet the camp director, consider asking some of the following questions to get a feel for the camp's atmosphere:

1. Is the camp accredited by the ACA?
2. What is the camp's philosophy and program emphasis?
3. What training do counselors receive?
4. What is the counselor-to-camper ratio?
5. What are the ages of the counselors?
6. What are desired qualities in camp staff?
7. How are behavioral and disciplinary problems handled?
8. How does the camp handle special needs?
9. How does the camp handle homesickness?
10. What about references?

(Source: American Camp Association)