I am assuming that every parent or guardian will begin by asking for price, hours of operation, and location without any prompting.  I am also making the assumption that you have already spoken with your child about interest in a specific program, camp, or camps.

Before we get into this, you should know that I have broken this into two sections:  one for Resident or Sleep-Away Camps, and one for Day Camps.  If you are looking into sending your child to a sports-focused or academic program you will need to ask additional questions that apply to the given activity. 

We’ll cover Resident Camp questions today and Day Camp questions on Monday.  They are different!

For Resident or Sleep-Away Camps

  1. What are your program’s goals for my child?
  2. Will there always be a staff person in the cabin with my child at night?
  3. What is the staff/camper ratio?  Is that consistent all day, or might it change for certain programs (i.e. swimming)?
  4. Is the camp schedule primarily pre-designed by a director, or do the campers make significant choices about the activities they participate in each day?
  5. Is my child allowed to contact me if they want to?  How can I stay in contact with my child?  What is appropriate contact?
  6. What is the average age of your campers?
  7. Where are the other campers from?
  8. Are all people on site background checked?  How?
  9. Who is your camp affiliated with?  YMCA?  A specific church?  A college?
  10. Are you accredited by the American Camp Association (www.acacamps.org)?

For every program, you should know the goals they have for their campers.  Make sure they match your goals for your child. 

Every camp has a different philosophy about ensuring a camp staff person is on duty in every cabin all night long.  Some camps require a staff person monitor 4-6 cabin while the counselors have time off in the evening.  Some programs don’t permit staff or volunteers to sleep in the same room as campers.  Each program has a reason for their rules.  Ask.  With the widespread concern about bullying in camps and schools, this is something you should ask a potential camp. 

Ask about camper to staff ratios.  I think this one is self-evident, but don’t forget to ask the follow-up questions.  Some camps count all their staff in this ratio (the office staff, the maintenance staff, the kitchen staff, etc.).  Additionally, probe to see if that “direct supervision” ratio is in play all day.  Do counselors have break-time while the campers swim (which places 100 campers with 6 life guards)? 

Know what kind of choices campers may have each day in the program and then match that to the needs of your child.  In my opinion, young children need more scheduled programs and teens need more opportunities for free choice.

Learn about the camp’s policy on parent-child contact.  I cannot stress this enough – for you and your camper.  There are plenty of programs that feel very strongly that a child can only develop their full potential by “making it on their own” with no home contact beyond letter writing.  There are also camps with more open policies that allow emailing or even post webcams around camp so parents can view daily activities.  Very few programs allow cell phones.  You know how much of a distraction cell & smart phones are at home and in school – camps feel the same way.  Most camps utilize technology that allows them to post photos and/or videos from camp on a daily basis.  Going a step further, I have been at camps that have allowed parents to come for lunch.  Having seen it, I don’t recommend it.  If you are looking into a camp where a session lasts for multiple weeks, most have a day set aside for parent visits. 

Do not ask this question:  “What age-range of campers do you accept?”  What you really need to know is the average age of campers in the program.  If the average age is 12, there may not be many 7 year-olds or 15 year-olds in the camp, regardless of the age-range advertised on the website or in the glossy brochure.  You want your child at a camp where they have peers to bond with.

You also want to find out where the campers come from – geographically.  If you value diversity and cultural competence, a program that boasts staff and campers from around the world is a real plus.  If you are hoping your child makes friends they can visit with all year-round, you may place more value on a camp with lots of children from your neighborhood.

Ask about background checks.  Know if every person who could come in contact with your child has been run through the sex offender database.  Know if staff and volunteers are drug tested.  Camps have different policies about background checks, training, and drug testing.  Learn why they do what they do and decide what you are comfortable with.

Find out what, if any, affiliations the camp has with national organizations, churches, or other institutions.  An affiliation with a national organization like the YMCA, Boy Scouts of America, or Girl Scouts of America will let you know that there are different resources and support available to the camp than if it is a “stand-alone” organization.  Likewise, it may give you insight into the organization’s values or goals.  In the interest of disclosure, I am partial to YMCA camps . . . .

Finally, determine if the program is accredited by the American Camp Association.  While I think it is important for both Day and Resident Camp programs, I think it is critical for Resident Camps.  ACA accreditation means that the camp operates at a minimum set of industry standards.  It means that the camp leadership has worked through facility, program, safety, and hr concerns – and much more.  ACA accreditation means the camp has invested in their craft.  A good camp is art.

If you have any questions about this post, please email me or share your comments and I will do my level best to answer them for you.  Good Luck!

We’ll see you at Camp!


Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp, The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.