5 questions to ask before sending your kids off to camp

Although you are watching the weather for snowfall predictions every day, summer is rapidly approaching. And now is the time to begin choosing which summer camp your children will attend.

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Whether your child is interested in music or chess, or you’re looking for a residential camp or a day camp, it is hard even to begin to know what questions you should ask before registering and making that first payment.

Here are five questions to ask that might make your decision easier:

Is the camp accredited through the American Camp Association?

Being accredited isn’t mandatory, but it means that the camp has allowed outsiders to inspect the camp for safety and a wide variety of other issues, says Gordie Kaplan, executive director of the American Camp Association’s Illinois chapter.

“… It is a plus for them,” he says. “It doesn’t mean that a camp that’s not accredited isn’t doing a safe job or a good job.”

Does the camp offer a day camp, a residential camp or both?

Kaplan says parents should involve their children in choosing the camp by doing research into the camp and its specialties, and whether the camp is a sleep-away residential camp or whether it is a day camp that lets kids go home every night.

A residential camp isn’t a good fit for every child, Kaplan says. But if a child is comfortable with sleepovers at friends’ or extended family members’ homes, they might be ready to graduate to a residential camp.

“It should not be `Mommy and Daddy want you to go to camp because we want to go on a long trip.’ It should be something meaningful for the child,” he says.

Rona Roffey, the camp director for YMCA Camp Duncan, part of the YMCA Metropolitan Chicago, says many residential camps also offer day camps or mini-sessions that start on Sunday and go through Wednesday, so younger campers don’t have to commit to an entire week.

Roffey says Camp Duncan’s day camps start at age 4 and residential camps start at 7.

“For younger campers, some are going to be ready for residential camp and some are not,” she says. “We’re prepared to help them through the tough first day or two. But if they commit to a mini-session and are having fun and want to stay until Friday check-out, they can do that, too, and then pay the difference.”

How does a camp address safety and other issues?

Roffey says many parents ask about the staff and whether they go through background checks, but it is also important to ask other safety-related questions. It’s important to know how many staff members go through CPR training and first aid courses. Ask about lifeguards and other protocols around water-related activities.

Kaplan says it is also important to know the camper-to-staff ratio and know how the staff will manage issues like homesickness and communication between parents and children.

Can we visit the camp and will it provide references? What is the staff/camper retention rate?

Kaplan says you should be wary of a camp that won’t let you visit in advance.

“You will get positive references from a camp, but you should also ask around to see if you know other families who have had experiences there,” he says. “You need to check it out to see if it is a good fit. You don’t just want to take someone else’s word for it, and you can promise anything in a brochure or on a website.”

Isaac Brubaker, day and overnight camp director for Jewish Council for Youth Services’ Camp Henry Homer Day Camp in Ingleside, says knowing how many campers and staff return year after year can tell a lot about the program.

“If you have a high return rate, you know those people are having enough fun that they want to come back year after year,” he says. “And that applies to staff as well as the campers.”

Can I meet the camp director? How passionate is the staff?

Brubaker says possibly the most important thing is to meet someone in the upper level of the camp’s management and see what kind of passion they have for the camp. He has been a camp director for 20 years and is still excited to go to camp every day.

“You need to know that person is passionate, and make sure that passion trickles down,” he says. “If the person in charge is passionate and enthusiastic, that translates to the rest of the camp.”

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