I still remember the Excel spreadsheet my husband created when our son was in grade school. We were trying to patch together multiple summer day camp options that would be fun and enriching for him and that also would, frankly, help us out with childcare while we both worked. We talked with friends, read everything we could get our hands on, pored over websites and cobbled together a plan. What we didn't have was great advice – like the tips from an expert, below – on how to go about the whole process.
With this advice, you'll know where to start looking, what questions to ask – and you'll even nab a few tips on what to do once you've chosen the right camp (or camps) for your child.
1. Know your child
"The age and interests of the child help to determine which type of camp experience will fit," says Howard Batterman of Blue Bell, Penn., owner and director of Sesame/Rockwood Camps and Rockwood Adventures Teen Travel Program. "With very young children ages 4 to 5, the length of the day and the week is a consideration.
"Most day camps offer mini or full days with extended hours for working families before and after the regular camp-day hours," continues Batterman, who also has held several leadership positions with the American Camp Association, or ACA.
"With older children, you will be looking into either a traditionally based program, which often includes swimming, sports, arts and outdoor-adventure activities and instruction, or short-term specialty programs with an emphasis on a particular sport, theater, dance or magic – or even something like robotics or culinary arts," he says.
2. Ask around
Of course, the Internet is a great source of information on local day camps. You'll also want to check out summer camp fairs, such as Metro Parent's annual Super Summers for Kids Camp & Activity, which includes plenty of southeast Michigan options. Word-of-mouth suggestions can be a great source of info, too, Batterman says. Parents from your child's school, neighbors and relatives are often happy to share their experiences with day camps, he adds.
It's even helpful to ask a favorite babysitter if he or she went to day camp or perhaps worked at one. Be sure to ask, "What did you like about the camp? What did you dislike? Would your child want to return to the same camp again in the future?" Some parents also ask their Facebook friends for recommendations when looking for camps. As you ask around, start creating a short list of camps that you want to consider.
3. Schedule a visit – and bring your questions
"Schedule a time to visit, along with your child, and tour the facilities with the director," suggests Batterman. Ask questions.
- Are lunch and snacks provided or do kids bring food from home?
- Is there care taken for children with food allergies?
- Is there a nurse on staff?
- Is transportation provided to and from your home? If so, how is that done?
- What is the camper-to-staff ratio? (This varies based on age. For the younger campers, Batterman recommends a three-to-one ratio; for older campers, 5-to-1.)
- How are children grouped?
- Is there a swim program? If so, what certifications do the people hold who are running it?
- What is the interview process for the staff? Have they had extensive background checks and been fingerprinted?
- What type of training do staff members receive?
4. Check out camp security
What procedures are in place to sign out a camper? At Batterman's camps, for example, each family is mailed ID cards before the start of camp. Child custody and parental restrictions should be strictly enforced, he notes.
Also, staff should be wearing camp T-shirts or some other type of uniform, and should wear photo ID on a lanyard, says Batterman. "This ensures that each staff member is identified," he adds. "If a stranger is on camp property, they are easy to spot."
5. Ask about visitation policies
Batterman suggests looking for a camp with an open-visitation policy for parents. "This is important because it tells the parents that the camp has nothing to hide," he says. "Parents should be able to stop by camp at their leisure to visit their child." (Always be sure to check in upon your arrival, as the camp will need to keep track of all visitors for security reasons.)
6. Check on accreditation
Is the camp ACA accredited? The American Camp Association is the governing body of both day and residential camps. "Camps that are accredited must comply with more than 300 standards for the health, safety and welfare of campers and employees," says Batterman.