5 questions to ask before choosing a camp

Catherine Castro, a mom of eight from Annapolis, has learned over the years what questions to ask to find the right camp for her kids. But it's taken a good bit of trial and error.

Camp questions WOne of her older children spent a miserable week at a camp with a broken pool and not enough other activities. Another summer, Castro regretted sending her son to a camp four hours away. More recently, however, she's found a camp right here in Maryland that her younger kids have loved. After touring Camp Wright in Stevensville and talking to the camp director, she felt more confident it would be a good experience for her kids, and it has been.

Asking questions is essential to ensuring a positive camp experience, says Todd Holland, CEO of the American Camp Association.

“Especially for parents making a first-time decision to send a child to camp, there can be a number of unknowns,” Holland says. “In cases where parents are considering an overnight experience, there may be some hesitancy about homesickness or how the camp will take care of their child. These are all normal concerns, which is why ACA urges parents to ask questions.”

Holland says that getting all the answers before sending a child to camp will help reassure parents that they have made the right choice.

“When parents are confident in their decision, they can better support and encourage their child about the exciting experience the camp will bring,” he says.

Here are some questions that Holland and area camp directors suggest asking before choosing a summer camp for your child.

1. What is the camp’s mission statement?

Understanding a camp’s mission can be a major factor in determining whether the camp is the right fit, says Megan Sweeney, camp programs coordinator for Camp Pecometh in Centreville. Some camps might have a religious focus — which parents may or may not be looking for — or some might allow more independence than parents desire. The mission statement is the first window into what life at camp might be like, Sweeney says.

“A great camp will have a great mission, and from there you can tell if the camp's goals align with the goals you have for sending your child to camp,” she says.

2. What is the counselor to camper ratio, and what kind of training and background checks do counselors and staff members undergo?

These are the most important questions you can ask about camp, says Allison Busky, owner of Timber Ridge Camp in High View, W.Va., where many of the campers are from Maryland.

The camper to counselor ratio at most camps is four campers to one adult, though the ratio at Timber Ridge is two to one, Busky says. Training and background checks for counselors and staff are also a must to ensure safety for the campers, she says.

“I think once a week there should be counselor training to go over problems the counselors are having,” Busky says. “Being a counselor is extremely difficult. There's a large burnout factor and some kind of level of sanity needs to be retained. ... It's 24 hours a day. The young people who live with the children should definitely get ongoing training.”

3. What activities are available?

When Castro sent her older daughter to a weeklong overnight camp, she assumed there would be plenty to do. But after the swimming pool was shut down, there weren't many activities other than archery, which her daughter didn’t enjoy.

“That camp was horrific,” Castro says.

At Camp Wright, there were a variety of activities that her children could choose from daily. Knowing they were spending their days learning and doing things they enjoyed put her mind at ease, she says.

Busky also says parents should ask whether the children are required to participate in activities. If they are not, the children might spend the days in their cabin, not bonding with other campers, and probably not having a good time.

“I don’t have to tell you, but when teenagers have too much downtime, they can get into trouble,” Busky says. “Whether they’re 6 or 16, they love to be involved in play and competition. You just have to encourage them.”

4. What are the camp's policies, rules and discipline strategies?

One summer a parent arrived at Camp Pecometh unaware of the camp's “no technology” policy and was very concerned, Sweeney says. The parent thought the policy was secretive and restrictive, but Sweeney says the camp is tech-free to encourage independence and communication.

“We believe that had this camper parent known our policies ahead of time, he would have had time to see the positive aspects of the policy, or been able to find a camp that was a better match for his expectations of the camp experience,” Sweeney says.

Some camps also have other policies and rules that might affect a camper’s experience, and parents and campers should be aware of these before the start of camp. Parents should also ask about discipline strategies to ensure these are aligned with personal beliefs.

“Parents need to ask, 'How do you punish children if they do something bad?'” Busky says. “At our camp we don't punish. We talk to them and work with the individual child. I don't call the parent unless I need to call the parent.”

Another policy to consider is how the camp handles homesickness. Most camps believe homesickness is natural and calling home will only exacerbate the problem. Parents need to understand how counselors help campers deal with homesickness, Busky says.

5. What is the policy on payments and refunds?

Most camps list their policies on payments and refunds on their websites or brochures. Some parents, however, might not notice these policies when signing up for camp, Sweeney says. These questions should be at the top of a parent's list so that they aren’t taken by surprise.

“From a camp's perspective, we understand that emergencies happen and kids change their mind and any number of other things can prevent a kid from getting to camp,” Sweeney says. “At the same time, camps hire staff, buy food and supplies, and run software based on registration numbers.”

Both sides should be willing to have a conversation to resolve misunderstandings, but having the knowledge ahead of time can help prevent major issues, she says.

By Kristy MacKaban

Click here for a listing of overnight camps.