By Shawn Marler and Rebecca Becker, Camp Rockmont
Parents pour a tremendous amount of time, energy, and intentionality into the search for the right school, the perfect doctor, the best-trained babysitter, and other family needs. No less energy should be devoted to researching a summer camp for you child. As we have fielded thousands of questions from our camp parents on how to choose the right summer camp, here are five questions we have found to be most important. These will help you educate yourself on how to choose the right sleep away summer camp that is the best fit for your family. Many of these principles can be used to determine the best day camp as well.
What makes your summer camp different?
There are thousands of summer camps out there, and many of them have blobs, zip lines, water slides, and a number of other classic camp attractions. Each of these adds value, but only if they are vehicles for the camp’s mission. Why does the camp blob and zip line? What are their hopes for your son’s development through those activities? Hopefully, their answer will be two-fold. “We blob because it’s FUN, and even more, because it takes some courage. It’s thrilling and a powerful experience.” Can you see their mission integrated into their program?
How will you keep my child safe?
This is one of the most important questions you can ask. Safety should be pervasive in the language of the overall camp culture. Safety begins with staff recruiting, hiring, and training (see next question!). The key word in this conversation is protocol. What are the camp’s protocols around camper-staff interaction? What does that look like in the cabin area, shower area, and around camp? Some camps seek the training expertise of organizations like Darkness to Light. Does this one? Looking at other program areas, how are lifeguards trained? Are there nurses on staff, and do they live on or near camp? What is the camp’s approach to preventing and addressing bullying? Ask about the opening day cabin orientation and how counselors prepare campers to have a safe camp experience.
How do you hire your staff?
The staff members are a camp’s most valuable asset. They drive the mission and will be acting in loco parentis. Just as you would learn as much as you could about a babysitter, you want to find out more about the camp staff. So, where does the camp recruit staff? What is their hiring process, and what are some sample questions in their interview? What is the post-interview process? Any camp that’s worth sending your child to will be doing thorough reference checks and background checks on all staff members. And that’s only the beginning. What are the essential training points of staff orientation?
What happens if my child gets homesick?
You will learn a lot about a camp’s developmental theory when you ask this question. Do they view homesickness as a preventable illness? Or terminal? Or do they view it as an appropriate developmental response to an away-from-home experience? A wise summer camp will not view it as a “sickness” at all, but rather see it as an opportunity to walk alongside the camper and navigate through those natural feelings. Compassion, connection, and collaboration are the remedy. Parents promising pick-up deals only complicate this developmental process. Working through those away-from-home experiences in a supportive community like camp is much preferable to navigating those feelings during the freshman year of college.
Will I be able to communicate with my child or with his counselor?
While most of your questions will be camper-focused, this one gets to the heart of how the camp experience will affect you as a parent during your temporary empty nest. Camps vary in the extent to which parents and campers are able to communicate, and you will need to determine what works best for you. Nearly all camps allow exchanges between camp and home via hand-written, mailed letters. Others allow one-way printed emails from parents in addition to letters. Then there’s the counselor’s letter home or end-of-camp report. Some camps even provide a direct line or email for your camper’s age group director. Remember, one of the goals of camp is for your child to begin developing a healthy sense of autonomy.
Continuing the Conversation
Calling or emailing with your questions is one of the most accessible ways to learn more about a prospective camp. If you have time and find yourself near the camp, you should ask for a camp tour with one of the directors. Allowing your child to see the facility and meet some of the leaders will make him feel all the more comfortable when he comes alone in the summer. You can also ask if the camp is hosting a home show in your town or setting up a virtual home show or webinar online. Those are great opportunities to hear from current camp parents and campers about their past experiences and current summer plans. It’s even a great way to scout out a potential cabinmate.
At its heart, the summer camp experience is a partnership. Camps partner with parents in their child’s development. And any good partnership involves communication. You should send your child to a camp that is eager to dialogue with you about their hopes for your child while at camp. These questions will provide you with helpful information, and you will often find that camp staff members are delighted to share with you about their work with children. So, give us a call and let us tell you more!
Shawn Marler is the Assistant Director at Camp Rockmont for Boys and directs their summer program for elementary-age campers. Rebecca Becker is the Registrar and herself a Camp Mom who works to answer the thousands of questions that come her way, speaking as one parent to another. She can even tell you where to find the best deal on a set of extra long twin sheets for camp.