But no website – not even the slickest of the slick – can replace the personal connection parents make with camp staff at dozens of camp fairs across the country. Especially in this time of increased awareness and anxiety about travel and security issues, parents want to know where their kids are going, who they are going to be with and what they are going to be doing. Putting a face with the program, and getting professional answers and attention from camp staff, affords parents a level of comfort they simply can’t get online.
Plus, at a camp fair or summer expo, parents can meet with representatives from multiple summer programs without the hassle of researching, traveling to, or even calling multiple program locations. As Don Wood of the Southeastern Division of the American Camping Association says: “A camp fair is like a road trip to each camp and a personal meeting with the director – all in one afternoon and at one location. There is no more efficient way to ask the right questions and find the right camp experience!”
At a fair, parents can ask questions, pick up written material and talk face-to-face with someone who knows what the camp is about. For busy parents, a well-organized and diverse camp fair is a valuable, time-saving tool that helps them explore summer options and ultimately, come to a sound decision about camp participation.
Fair organizers and exhibitors encourage parents to prepare for their visit. Talk with your family to determine the kinds of programs you’ll be interested in.
Ask yourselves these questions:
How long should the program be?
Should it be a day program or an overnight program?
What type of program interests you (academic, sports, adventure, outdoor, etc.)?
What age groups are your children comfortable with? Coed or single sex?
How much will your family budget allow for summer programs?
How far away should the camp be?
Armed with the answers to these questions, you will have a better idea of the basic type of program your children are looking for. That will narrow your search, and it will lower the number of people you need to speak with at the camp fair. If possible contact the fair sponsor to request a list of registered exhibitors. Such a list is particularly helpful in advance, as it will serve as a check-list of your must-see exhibitors, and it will help you determine what kinds of questions you’ll ask the camp representatives when you speak with them. You can even visit their websites in advance to get a better sense of the programs’ activities and schedules. The extra research might bring up additional questions about program specifics, or facilities, beyond the basics like number of campers, cost and length of session.
Here are some examples to get you started:
What are the program’s mission and philosophy?
Is the program accredited and by whom? If it is not, you may want to ask why the camp directors feel accreditation is not important.
What is the ratio of staff to campers? How is the staff trained? What are their credentials? How many of them used to be campers?
What is the background of the program director? How long has he or she been with the program?
How many campers return for multiple summers?
Can you provide the name(s) of former campers who might be willing to talk about the program?
What are the program’s standards for discipline?
What is the ratio of activity or class time to down time?
What kind of medical treatment/facility does the program have access to?
Hopefully, your children will be interested in attending the camp fair with you. Such a visit can build on their existing excitement about attending camp and warm any cold feet that have come creeping around. Encourage them to speak directly with the camp representatives and to form their own opinions about the camp’s personality. As an added bonus, you’ll get to experience first-hand the camp staff’s approach with children. Many camp professionals are skilled at encouraging even the shyest of campers to speak up.
With a little luck, you’ll leave the camp fair knowing exactly which programs match your family’s needs, and your child will be ready to sign on the dotted line.
Cathy Ashby is a former summer camp counselor and administrator.