Camp Counsel

So many factors go into choosing a summer camp that its often difficult even to know where to begin. Here, the seven most crucial camp questions parents should ask.

How do I prepare my child for overnight camp?

If you can, take your child to the camp ahead of time so that he or she can meet the people there and become familiar with the surroundings. Once you take away that feeling of it being a foreign experience, it makes the child feel a whole lot better. Let your child ask you questions, and be honest in your answers. If your child asks you, What do I do if I’m homesick? telling them, Of course you wont be homesick! is the wrong answer. Chances are they will be homesick, so work through it with them: You can talk to your counselor; you can talk to someone in your bunk; you can write us a letter.

If its the first time your child is going away, start practicing separation. Get him or her to sleep at other peoples houses, whether its a grandparent, friend, or whatever. Look at your child really honestly; think about who he or she is and what he or she needs. If you want your child to be in the right bunk, with the right counselors and the right kids, you’ve got to paint an honest, accurate picture to the camp director. Don’t pretend that your child is something that he or she is not; its not going to help.

Should my child go to a co-ed camp or a single-sex camp?

Each offers things that the other one does not. With a co-ed camp, if you have a boy and a girl in your family, you can send them to the same camp. And kids become good friends with people of the opposite sex at co-ed camps; its not like school, where there’s a far more rigid environment. Co-ed camps are also pretty rah-rah kinds of places theres a lot of spirit in a co-ed camp.

What people tend to love about single-sex camps is that a child can be himself or herself without feeling like he or she has to impress somebody of the opposite sex. They’re more concerned about playing sports than they are about the cute girl who happens to be on the tennis court right next to them. Girls may be 13, 14 years old, and they’re running around with hair in ponytails, no makeup they’re not concerned about what boys are going to think. And a lot of camps are brother-sister camps, so if you have a boy and a girl, they can go to their separate camps and still get to spend time together.

Whats the difference between a structured camp and a non-structured camp? Which type of camp is a better fit for my child?

A structured camp has a bunk with generally two counselors, and those two counselors are with the same kids all day long; they’re taking them from activity to activity. Everybody gets to know each other very well, which is extremely important particularly for a first-time camper or young child. I think the bonding experience and the friendships that are formed and that real sense of camp community happen in a structured camp.

The non-structured, or elective, camp, where the child chooses his or her daily activities, is terrific for the older child and for the child who is very independent and knows what he or she wants to do. But the caveat is, if its a child’s first time away, or if the child is somewhat clingy or needs nurturing, that can be a very overwhelming experience.

Should my child go to camp with a friend?

If you can convince your child to go by himself or herself, it is the greatest gift you will give him or her. When a child goes with a friend, that child is bringing all the baggage from home when he or she gets off that bus. At home, I may be the shy, quiet child, but when I get off the camp bus, I am whatever I present myself to be. So many children go to camp and reinvent themselves, and they come home with so much more confidence. The other part of the problem is that camp is a place to make new friends, and if you’ve got this friend from home, you feel pretty obligated to stick with that friend, so every time you’re asked to pick a buddy, you feel guilty if you don’t pick him or her, and conversely, if he or she does not pick you, you’re so hurt. Its putting a lot of responsibility on kids as well; if I go to camp with you, and for some reason you’re not happy, I feel responsible for you.

If the child does go to camp with a friend from home, try to convince the two kids to not be in the same bunk at least then you’re forcing them to make new friends.

Should I tour the camp before sending my child there?

Absolutely, if you can. A lot of day camps have open houses in the spring, which gives you an opportunity to meet them, meet some of their staff, meet some of the other kids that are going there. With overnight camps, what many parents do is tour one summer with the intention of sending their child the next summer.

What is the camps philosophy and program emphasis?

In order for a camp to be a successful fit, you need to be on the same page with the camp on what you believe is a good experience. That question should always be asked of a camp director before you sign your child up. What a camp director is most proud of, what he or she is trying to accomplish that shouldn’t be a pat answer. That should be something that he or she feels strongly about and is very committed to.

How can I be sure the camp is safe?

A camp being accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA) is a parents best evidence of a camps commitment to safety. We are the only organization that is nationally recognized as being able to accredit camps. When a camp is accredited, that means that every three years, someone personally goes there to make sure that the camp is living up to almost 300 standards. But I still suggest to parents that they do their own homework. Make sure that you ask the camp director, How do you hire and train your staff? How are you prepared to handle an emergency situation? Who are the people that are down at the waterfront? A parent can check into a states camp guidelines, and they can also call the Better Business Bureau to see whether or not the camp has any outstanding violations.

Renee Flax is Program Services Director for the American CampAssociationNew York. For more information or to speak with Renee, call 1-800-777-2267 or visit

Photo: CampChinqueka, Mt. Tom Pond, Connecticut