by Christa Melnyk Hines
Day camps come in all shapes and sizes, appealing to a range of interests and ages. Here’s how to find a camp that invests in your youngster by creating an unforgettable experience where they’ll meet new friends, gain self-confidence and learn new skills –all while giving you peace of mind.
Begin with basics. First determine your schedule needs. Some camps are only a few hours a day while others are structured to work well with a working parent’s schedule. Figure out if you’ll need to arrange before or after care. From there, seek a camp with “caring staff, fun programs and a dedication to the health and safety of the campers,” says DD Gass, a director of camps and school-age services for a faith-based community center.
Match the camp with your child’s interests. From computer coding to robotics and sports, day camps offer kids the opportunity to try all kinds of new activities. If your child isn’t interested in a camp that specializes in one activity, choose a more traditional camp that offers a wide range of activities throughout the session. “Make sure there’s a healthy balance between structure and choice,” says Jim Spearin, senior vice president of Youth Development for the YMCA.
Consider the culture. Ask for referrals from trusted family and friends.“Choose a camp that welcomes parents as partners in their experience,” Spearin says. “Parents should always feel welcome to come visit during camp. There should be planned activities for both parent and camper to enjoy together such as special events or campouts.”
Seek qualified, organized staff. Camp employees should be licensed, certified and trained in sexual/child abuse prevention, first aid and CPR. Find out how camp leaders are supervised and how they plan for emergencies, including natural disasters, intruders and other threats. Also consider the child-to-staff ratio. Will your child feel lost in a group that’s too big, even if it meets state criteria? “It’s vitally important for staff to have child development knowledge and experience to ensure that appropriate, engaging and enriching activities are offered,” says Katrina Ball, a childcare resource and referral director.
Try it before you buy. Attend a camp expo or camp fair to find out what options exist in the area. Some organizations feature their own camp fairs and mini-camps during the spring for families to try. “As a parent you know your child best and what program would be best for them. Trust your instincts,” Ball says.
Calm butterflies. Many youngsters have a hard time adjusting to new situations and people and may feel scared or intimidated. Include them in the process of choosing a camp. Discuss the schedule of activities and what a typical day will look like. “Children can help pack their lunch (if needed) and pack their backpack with the items they’ll need for camp. This helps them know what they have in their backpack and know what they will need to bring home,” Gass says.
Find out if one of your child’s friends would like to attend the camp with him. Attending orientations, visiting the camp site and meeting the staff prior to the beginning of camp can also help reduce any pre-camp jitters.
Freelance journalist, Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband are the parents of two happy day campers. Christa’s latest book is Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.