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In preparing for summer camp, parents ask a lot of questions – as they should. What happens when a child get homesick? What kind of activities will my child be able to participate in? How will your staff help my child make friends?
All of these are good, valid concerns. But my favorite question, hands down, is “How far away is too far away to send a child to summer camp?”
If you are a reader who likes his or her answer up front, let me satisfy your curiousity immediately with a 2 part response:
- It depends on the child attending camp.
- It depends on the parent who is sending the child to camp.
Now its perfectly clear, right? Perhaps not. But it was helpful, right? Again, perhaps not.
This summer, I ran a poll on LinkedIn and asked adults this very question (http://linkd.in/mMvo0b). With a few votes shy of 200 responses, my results are less than definitive, but the comments were pure gold. I simply asked, “If you were sending a 10 year-old to sleep-away camp, what is a comfortable distance?”
When framing my responses, I used times (less than 1 hour away, 1-2 hours away, 2-4 hours away, anywhere in the country, and anywhere in the world), but I did not define how a camper might be travelling. In my opinion, once campers are travelling more than 4 hours away (by car, boat, train, or plane), they are too far away for parents to rush to their aid in the same day. When campers are 4 or more hours away, they are “beyond reach.” Coincidentally, this is how I picked a college. I wanted a school that my parents could not easily visit. I chose Grinnell College in Iowa, a full 16 hour drive from my home in Pennsylvania.
As you might expect, responses to this simple question were all over the map (pun intended).
- 21% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp less than 1 hour from home.
- 34% of respondents were comfortable with their child attending camp 1-2 hours away.
- 27% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp 2-4 hours from home.
- 9% of respondents were comfortable with their child attending camp anywhere in their home country.
- 9% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp anywhere in the world.
If you take the time to review the results in more detail, you would find a trend towards older parents feeling more comfortable with their children traveling further from home than younger parents. You wouldn’t see significant differences between men and women.
My Advice to Parents: The perfect camp will be where you and your child’s comfort levels intersect. Some kids are ready at 7 to fly across the country. Some parents will never be ready for their children to be an hour away from them. As my father is fond of saying, “moderation in all things.” Look for the compromise.
Please keep this in mind: Your goal should be to challenge your child and push her a step beyond her comfort level. If you keep her too close, she may not feel challenged and/or independent. If you push her too far out of her comfort zone, she may not benefit from the experience. The same thing goes for you as a parent. If you’re a parent who believes you can’t live without your child sleeping in the next room, look for the camp that is an hour away or less. Don’t immediately send your camper across the country. Moderation.
My Advice to Camp Directors: “What?” you may wonder, “What does this post have to do with the art of camp management?” Well, it should impact how you look at your marketing work. Most parents responding to this poll, 55%, are comfortable sending their child to a camp less than 2 hours away. 82% of all parents who responded to the survey are looking for a camp that is less than 4 hours away from their home. So, if you are on a limited marketing budget, focus on promotional events and ads that are within 2 hours drive of your camp. Half of all parents looking for sleep-away camp next summer will be comfortable with your location.
We’ll see you at Camp!
Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp program (YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser and Bynden Wood), The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.
So you have made the decision to send your child to summer camp. It was a great decision. Your children will learn about the outdoors and themselves while meeting interesting people and making new friends. Well done.
It’s early now and you have time to worry about the “big questions.” Remember why you felt a summer camp experience was important for your child. As he matures, it’s important for him to take his first steps into the-big-bad-world. There is no safer, better supervised environment for him to test the wings of his new-found independence than in summer camp.
What your 4th grade English teacher said was true, “there are no stupid questions.” If you, the parent, never went to summer camp, we expect you to have a lot of questions. Even if you went to summer camp last century, believe us when we say a lot has changed. Parents should call, email, or visit their summer camp until they have every questioned answered. Don’t worry about us, we love to talk about camp.
Stay in Touch
Join your camp’s Facebook page. Follow your camp on Twitter. Visit the camp website every week. Visit camp for a tour, an open house event, or attend a family camp program. The more interaction you have with camp staff, the more comfortable you will be when your child goes away for a week or two this summer.
You’ve seen the brochure. You watched the videos. You’ve visited the website. You’ve talked to camp staff. Visit the camp! It will be worth the trip, and it will give you and your new camper another chance to ask questions and get comfortable.
Be Brave for Your Child
After 20 years on summer camp staff there is a dirty little secret about homesickness I think you ought to know: Your fond farewells on the first day of camp can often cause – or alleviate – homesickness. If your camper sees you are nervous and sad at the start of camp, she will feel that way, too. She will often feel sad for you. Be strong for your new camper. Let her know how excited you are for her to have this new experience. Let her know you will be alright while she is gone. It could make all the difference.
Take Time for Yourself
Parents deserve a break. Summer camp can give you that break. You are unlikely to ever have a better trained person looking after the needs of your child than during a week of summer camp (other than you, of course). Most camp staff are CPR and 1st Aid certified, they have been trained in dozens of fun games and activities, they sleep in the same room with the kids they care for, and watch what they eat at meals. Take a break while your child is away and in good hands. Watch a movie. Visit a spa. Recharge your batteries.
Celebrate the Accomplishment
Celebrate the accomplishment of completing the first week away at summer camp (for you and your child). After camp, go to a favorite restaurant and share with your child how proud you are of him. Chances are, he will have a lot to talk about.
Know that your child is going to learn new things, build self-esteem, make new friends, and be cared for by excellent camp counselors who are there for you child.
We’ll See you at Camp!
Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp, The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.
*This article was started by Jeff Henry, the summer camp intern at YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser, and finished by Nathan.
In this first part of this series we looked at Resident Camps. Now we’ll take a look at Day Camps. These are very different programs that meet very different needs.
For Day Camps
- How is your program different from traditional childcare or babysitting?
- What is the background of your director and staff? What are their qualifications?
- How long has your camp been in operation?
- What is the staff/camper ratio? Is that consistent all day, or might it change for certain programs (i.e. swimming)?
- Are all people on site background checked? How?
- How much time do campers spend outside per day?
- What is the average age of your campers?
- How many weeks or sessions do most campers attend?
- How does the program vary from week-to-week or session-to-session?
- Are you accredited by the ACA (www.acacamps.org)?
My bias toward resident camps becomes clear in these questions. In resident camping, most directors have a year-round position to develop their programs and staff. Resident camps often own their own facilities and have made long-term investments in offering camp programs. That is not always the case for day camps. In the last 10 years everyone has gotten in on the day camp game out of the belief that it is a “money maker.” We have fitness centers, churches, schools, sports teams, art galleries, state parks, colleges, and museums all offering a variation on the traditional day camp program. In every case listed above, day camp is not part of their core business. It may even be an afterthought. Parents need to probe these programs to make sure the day camp and its campers are a priority to the organization.
A good day camp is not childcare. Sure, in both cases the health and safety of children is paramount, but the comparison may stop there. A good day camp has developed outcomes for each child, measures the success of these outcomes annually through surveys, and is able to share all that information with you. A day camp may have your child for 8-10 hours a day and should be able to constantly challenge and engage its campers.
Always ask the background of the director and staff in a day camp. How long has the camp leadership been honing their craft? Is this the director’s first attempt at putting together a day camp, or have they been developing this program over many years? Remember, it is never wrong to ask for references (i.e. former camp families).
Just like learning the experience of the director, it is important to know how long the day camp has been in operation. Day camps have low start-up costs and can be here today and gone tomorrow. Make sure the organization is committed to running camp. Is it a 30-year, family-run program? Does it own the property it operates on? Is it part of your community in a tangible way?
I wrote about staff/camper ratios and the background checks of staff in my post on Resident Camp, and I won’t belabor those points here. Understand, however, that your potential day camp program may be offered in a public place – making it difficult to background check every adult who could come into contact with your child. Day Camps held in fitness centers, museums, and public parks cannot control or screen every person that uses their facilities. Now that I have scared you, please know that plenty of quality day camp programs operate in public places. It’s simply one of many factors you may want to consider when choosing a day camp for your child.
Tomorrow I will post some research on children and the great outdoors. Take my word for it, kids need to be outside. Your fitness center day camp may make the pitch that at their facility it’s “always 72 and sunny,” but that does not take the place of spending time in nature. On the other hand, there is plenty of research that tells us to limit the amount of time children and adults spend in the sun. A day camp that offers both indoor and outdoor program space is probably the right balance.
Like any youth development program, it is important to know if your child will have peers in the program – so ask. Determine if your child fits developmentally with the other children in the program, as well as with the demands of the program. Along the same lines, ask how many sessions or weeks the typical camper attends. Some programs (good ones), are designed to change and challenge across an 11 weeks summer. Other programs are built to be a one-week experience. Previous parents have a feel for this and vote using their enrollment dollars. They will send their children for 8 or more weeks if they feel the campers are still having fun and learning something new.
Take it a step further and ask the director how week 1 is different from week 2. Are there new field trips each week? Does the camp utilize themes to make sure the program is different each session? Again, match your family’s needs to what the day camp can offer.
Finally, determine if the program is accredited by the American Camp Association. 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.