As a child, I attended some really amazing day and overnight camps (thumbs up Toronto Zoo and Scarborough Music Camp!!) I have so many fond memories of camp – meeting new friends, honing new skills, learning independence and eating SO MUCH SUGAR. I also attended some not so good camps, and a couple of really, really bad camps.
It’s stressful as a working parent to find childcare for March break and the summer months. We would love to have 12 weeks of vacation each year to spare, but alas, The Boss limits us to 3 or 4 (more if you’re lucky!)
So when it comes time to pick a day or overnight camp, many parents struggle to find the right one. “Will my child enjoy themselves? Will they be safe? Will they learn something?” These are all important questions we ask ourselves once registration begins.
I turned to a friend of mine, local photographer and mother Kim Brooks (of Breathe In Photography). In a past life, Kim was a camp director, and eventually went on to consult with camps around health, safety, and camper and staff experiences. She gave me some questions she would be sure to ask before she sent her own daughter to camp.
“There are standards set out by the Ontario Camps Association (OCA), for example, that would be a great starting point” says Brooks. These standards deal with all aspects of a camp – leadership, training, direction, safety and financial management. Camps don’t have to be approved by the OCA to be well-run, but the website provides information to parents on how to choose a camp (see 10 Questions to Ask a Camp Director)
Ultimately, Brooks says it’s up to us parents to do our research. “If you can meet the directors of the camps you hope to send your child to, that’s a great plan. Get a good vibe, and ask some questions around emergency procedures, camper to staff ratios, training that the staff receives, menu plans, the age and qualifications of the staff, and the rate of turnover for both campers and staff.” Many camps have open houses which is a great opportunity to learn many of these things and to meet the staff.
Here are some more tips:
1. Leadership: how long has the director been there? Do they seem passionate about their job, and willing to answer any questions you have?
2. Site: will your child stay on-site, or be bused to another location? “Going off-site for swimming, for example, would lead me to ask more questions around how they manage off-site visits. Who is responsible for lifeguarding?” says Brooks. Also, if children are near a body of water, very clear safety measures need to be in place. Brooks advises parents to find out about life jacket policies, and ensure children wear them at all times on the water.
3. Head counts: how often will camp staff do head counts? How quickly will they learn campers’ names? “I feel more comfortable when my child’s leader knows her name by day two - to me that shows camper focus and that is very important to her experience,” says Brooks.
4. What will campers do when it rains?
5. If the camp is overnight, how are children supervised during the night? Is there a nurse on-staff in case of illness?
6. References: check with other parents in your area. Everyone will have a different experience, but word-of-mouth is a great way to weed out the camps that are poorly managed vs the ones that children and families return to year after year.
7. Gut feeling: don’t discount your spidey senses! If you don’t get a great feeling from the camp director or other staff, begin to look elsewhere.
We’re all strapped for time, but doing your due diligence will make a big difference in your child’s experience. They’ll either leave with lifelong memories, or run screaming the next time you mention the word “camp.” That said, don’t stress if your child has a less than stellar experience at camp. Sometimes it’s out of your control – which makes me think of the story of my uncle, who discovered he was allergic to horses…at horse camp :)