Do your homework when shopping for your kid's camp — to prevent his summer from being a bummer.
1. "Accreditation? We don't bother."
Sending your kid away for a summer of fresh air and wholesome fun seems easier than ever. About 7,000 overnight programs and 5,000 day camps exist in the United States, according to the American Camping Association. The number of day camps, where kids return home each evening, has nearly doubled over the past two decades — in large part because they are less expensive and they accept younger children.
Choosing a camp that's right for your kid, though, can alternate between exciting and daunting. Only about 2,500 camps have ACA accreditation, a voluntary process in which the camp meets more than 300 different standards. The organization's Web site, www.acacamps.org, offers a "Find a Camp!" database of accredited programs. While other camps may be perfectly legitimate, you'll need to do a little homework to be sure. First, check out the Web directory KidsCamps.com, where you can search a database of camps based on geography and interests. To get a better feel for how a camp operates, call its director and ask about staff screening procedures — whether the camp does background checks — and about its staff return rates (anything over 50% is good). Then ask about the staff-to-camper ratio: Look for a ratio of 1 to 4 for very young kids and 1 to 8 for older campers. Make sure the camp has a state permit or license that requires it to meet minimum safety requirements.
Most important, get references. "Ask for people in your hometown," advises Christopher Thurber, a New Hampshire psychologist and coauthor of The Summer Camp Handbook. "That means they can't handpick the people you talk to."
2. "We pay for referrals."
Camp advisory services, which advertise online or in the yellow pages, can help streamline the process of choosing a camp by doing the legwork for you. They tend to be long-standing mom-and-pop operations, and they're free. Jill Tipograph, director of Summer Solutions, says she keeps records on more than 500 camps and teen programs around the world. "Parents don't know if these programs are safe or what their reputation is," Tipograph says. "They prefer to work with programs we have been sending children to."
These companies have to make money somehow, however, and guess who pays? The camps. That's not to imply that all advisers recommend only camps that pay them. Tipograph, for one, says she has referred parents to nonclient programs. You should ask advisers how they charge: If they're paid a set fee, regardless of how many referrals a camp gets, that's good. If they're paid based on how many kids they refer, that's less reassuring. When you contact a camp, ask about its relationship with the adviser who sent you, just to double-check.
3. "We're not the right camp for your kid."
In an effort to attract business, some camps can be notorious about flip-flopping on their supposed "philosophies," says one East Coast camp official. "I've called up camp X and said, 'My kid is Jewish. How religious are you? (Because) my kid hates services.' And they say, 'Oh, he'll be perfect here.' And then we call again and say, 'How religious is the camp? My kid is very religious,' and they say the same thing."
Specialty camps, a fast-growing area, can be big culprits. Naoko Halloran realized she'd made a mistake in choosing the art day camp her then nearly five-year-old son went to in Maui last summer. "He was the youngest one there and found the day too long," she says. While her son came home with some "amazing" oil paintings, Halloran says he felt lost "hanging out with 10-year-olds." To avoid such misunderstandings, be honest in evaluating your child's personality, and be sure to check the referrals a camp provides. Ask them, "How would you describe the typical kid at this camp?" According to Stacy DeBroff, author of Sign Me Up! The Parents' Complete Guide to Sports, Activities, Music Lessons, Dance Classes, and Other Extracurriculars, "Matching the culture of the camp to the personality of your child is the formula for success, period."
4. "You think getting your kid into Harvard is tough?"
Camp registration rates have grown 10% annually from 1991 to 2001, which makes it harder than ever to get your kid into her camp of choice. "The entire period of time for signing up has shifted dramatically," says Laurel Barrie, who owns camp advisory company Camp Connection. Some camps fill up as early as August.
Philip Margolis, of Glastonbury, Conn., found that out the hard way two years ago, when he and his wife decided to send their then-eight-year-old son, Jacob, to an overnight camp affiliated with their temple. They registered one or two weeks before the Mar. 1 deadline, but their son's age group was already full. "Jacob's enthusiasm after hearing the camp's presentation (less than two months earlier) made our first decision easy," he says. "When he didn't get in, we had to go back to the drawing board."
Still, if you're thinking of registering now, don't panic. "There are plenty of camps available," says Nancy LaPook Diamond, president of KidsCamps.com, "but act quickly." Ask the director at your first-choice camp what other programs he or she recommends; then, if need be, get on wait lists at your preferred camps. Registered kids often commit to other camps or change their minds about attending.
5. "We'll put your Little League star through the grinder."
The most popular alternatives to traditional camps these days are sports specialty camps. But for kids who don't have NBA or Olympic dreams — and abilities to match — many may be too hard-core.
Last summer Dayna Bergman, a stay-at-home mom in Bucks County, Pa., was a chaperone at the cheerleading camp her then-11-year-old daughter's school squad attended. It turned out the camp had been chosen by the school coaches and was geared toward high school girls who were serious athletes. "They were getting up at 7 a.m. and working out until they couldn't walk," says Bergman. "The kids weren't very happy."
Before you register, ask the director to describe a typical day and the level of competition. "Say, 'If my child is tired at 4 o'clock because he's been playing lacrosse for five hours, can he sit down?'" suggests Rick Echlov, summer programs director for Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., which runs 14 day camps. "The answer might be, 'No, he'll be in the middle of a game.'"
Also, ask who's going to be coaching your kids. Many sports camps feature a former college or pro athlete, or a big-name coach. Stars attract a huge enrollment, which means your kid may get little face time with him or her. Make sure whoever works with your kid most of the time is more than an enthusiastic counselor, but a coach with solid experience and training.
6. "Our add-ons really add up."
The basic cost of camp can range from reasonable to resort-like. The average tuition at an accredited day camp is $75 to $300 per week, according to the ACA, and overnight camps are $201 to $400 per week. Rates at higher-end programs and many on the East Coast can be about 50% higher.
But across the board, the costs don't end there. Stacy DeBroff thought the $6,000 tuition she paid to send her then-nine-year-old son to a seven-week overnight camp last summer would include everything. So she was shocked when she received a catalog of required clothing-including camp-logo T-shirts, sweatshirts, mesh shorts and sports jerseys. "The required uniform included 17 things!" she says. "It added about $300." Another unexpected extra: $30 to have the camp print out the e-mails she sent her son.
KidsCamps.com's Diamond advises parents to ask about extra fees before booking. Things often not included, she says, are transportation, swimming lessons, food, horseback riding and uniforms.
7. "Our prices are negotiable."
Camp enrollments may be booming, but it's still a good idea to ask for a discount. In a recent survey by the ACA, 65% of accredited camps reported offering campers some level of financial assistance. Called "camperships" in the industry, discounts often depend on income; some camps provide partial camperships because of a family medical crisis or if a parent is in the military. Ask about these as soon as you begin contacting camps.
Even if you don't qualify for aid, many camps offer discounts of 5 to 10% for early registration, full-season enrollment or enrollment of multiple family members. Marci Rose, an artist and mother of three in Churchville, Pa., saved $300 off a $6,800 tab by signing her daughter up for camp on visiting day during the previous summer. Because her other daughter was attending, too, Rose got an additional $400 "sibling" discount.
8. "Your kid could get sick here — really sick."
Poison ivy rashes, head lice and sore throats are staples of camp infirmaries. Make sure your kid's camp is equipped to handle such basics. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that overnight camps with more than 50 kids have an onsite registered nurse with access to a supervising M.D.
When groups of kids get together, however, more-serious ailments can become an issue. When Nancy Springer sent her then-14-year-old son, Nick, to an overnight camp in Massachusetts five years ago, he contracted meningococcal meningitis after sharing a water bottle with campmates, including one who was an uninfected carrier. "We sent a healthy child away to summer camp," Springer says. "Two weeks later he was on life support." In a move that probably saved the boy's life, the camp's doctor recognized the purple rash, started Nick on an IV of the right antibiotic and called an ambulance. Other campers haven't been so fortunate: In 2002 a 12-year-old Oklahoma girl, who was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis after attending a Girl Scout camp in Joplin, Mo., died.
While cases of meningitis are rare, the conditions at camps — sharing close living quarters as well as food, water bottles, utensils and even lip balm — put kids at greater risk for the disease. What can parents do? Tell your child not to share such personal items, but better yet, get him vaccinated. Menomune, manufactured by Aventis Pasteur, protects against four of the five strains of meningitis. For more information, visit the National Meningitis Association's Web site at www.nmaus.org.
9. "Our values aren't the same as yours."
When one New York mom received a phone call from her daughter's camp director saying they had a serious disciplinary problem, she was shocked — until she heard what the problem was. "She got in trouble for writing her name in toothpaste on the bathroom mirror, which I didn't think was such a terrible thing to do," the mom says. The camp disagreed, considering it harming public property. "She was really demonized by the authority figures," the mom continues. "She was docked from evening activities and had it marked on her camp records. She was in tears."
Rule breakers — no matter how silly the rules may seem to parents — are often sent home, so make sure you know the rules ahead of time and that you feel comfortable with the repercussions. What happens, for instance, if your kid raids the girls cabin or gets caught using a cell phone? If the offense is bad enough for him to be sent home — hazing and drinking are two obvious ousters — parents can get punished too, at least financially. "If you bring certain things to our camp," like fireworks, says David Phillips, executive VP at Maryland's Capital Camps & Retreat Center, "you're going home, and you're not getting your money back."
10. "Your kid's homesick? He looks okay to us."
A whopping 95% of kids who go to overnight camp feel some degree of homesickness, says New Hampshire psychologist Christopher Thurber, who conducted multiple studies at camps between 1993 and 2001. But chances are you won't hear about that from directors. "Camps want to help kids adjust," he says, "but they're hesitant to bring (homesickness) up, because that doesn't sell slots."
Thurber recommends that families prepare for separation by having the child practice spending time away — at a sleepover, say — and honing coping skills. But also ask your prospective camps about parent-child communication policies before booking. Most resident camps allow few or no phone calls, "and that's a good thing," Thurber says. "Not enough camps tell parents that (taking their kid home after a plaintive call or letter) is really bad."
In case it's needed, make sure the camp provides counseling you approve of should your kid end up with more than just a day or so of the blues. "Some camps provide (staffers with) specialized training on homesickness and adjustment, but others don't," Thurber says. Specifically, counselors should be able to recognize signs of distress and be trained in talking to kids about homesickness. Just don't expect them to offer any consoling hugs. Fearing accusations of inappropriate behavior, Thurber says, "Many camps are training their staff not to hug kids. Some think the only acceptable touch is a pat on the shoulder or a high-five."