Some serious advice from a former camp counselorJul 27, 2012 Write an essay on this topic.
The Bottom Line Make sure it is safe, clean, and has a good budget. Learn to let go but be prepared and well informed.
I worked as a camp counselor for a Girl Scout camp, and some of the things that I saw would terrify you (lifeguards standing around while a girl was drowning, horses getting out and girls being lined up in the middle of the night to try to build a "human wall" to keep them from escaping camp property, a camp counselor exposing himself to the girls, and drunkenness. I tell you what it made me want to NEVER want to send my kids to camp, but the truth is that there are some things that you can do as a parent to determine the how good/bad the camp is.
Get to know the organization:
Usually camps are run by a greater organization (the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts, a state park etc). For this example we will look at the Girl Scouts. You need to look at how the organization is run in your area. Maybe the organization is great overall, but the one in your area is disorganized, they are low on their budget etc. If that's the case...back out NOW. If they can't run an office, you don't need to put your child in the woods with them. Furthermore if they have no money in the budget, that's also a bad sign...I know times are hard but consider this: you have very little money for your family, but you would like to go on a vacation, what are some things you might consider backing out on? Maybe you buy a cheaper plane ticket, perhaps you eat cheaper meals. With something like this, you don't know where they are making their cuts. Maybe they are cutting back on the security at the camp, maybe they have less money for employees so there are less people per children....NOT a good sign. Consider sites like this one or yelp.com to find out what parents and children have to say about their experiences with the camp.
Find out when parents can visit
As a parent I want to be able to see my children anytime, but as a camp counselor I can tell you that's impractical and unsafe. You may be a great parent, and I'm sure you are, but what about the alcoholic/drug using parents, do you want them showing up at camp just...whenever? Also, I'll be honest with you, when there are kids there, there's simply not enough time to check every person who claims to be "Johnny's mom". Think of it this way...someone shows up and says "hey i'm Johnny's mom", the counselors are seriously busy with tons of children, and they have to just take their word for it. That could in fact be "Johnny's mom" or it could be a kidnapper, a child molester etc.
For this reason many times, camps will state that under no uncertain terms that parents can not visit while camp is in session. Many camps have a "parent day", you can go, check out the camp and see what it has to offer.
They will also tell you that this is for your child's benefit as well. You don't want to show up in the middle of the week when you child has FINALLY gotten used to the camp, and then put them back at square one with homesickness.
How is the food?
Ok I know this seems like a weird question, but it's worth asking children who have been there before. If the food is awful and your child won't eat it, and they are running and playing all day, they are going to be exhausted, and they aren't going to function well. Now don't expect 5 star quality food. They won't be getting duck, or salmon (unless they are at a culinary camp), but are they being fed hot dogs, hamburgers (regular camp food), OR is it boxed mashed potatoes and gravy for breakfast lunch and dinner? I have been a counselor at two different camps, and the one I liked the best offered a salad bar daily as well as whatever they happened to serve for the main meal.
Get to know the staff:
If it is a Girl Scout camp or a "girls only" camp, there should be only female counselors. If it's a boy's camp it should be male only counselors. Can you imagine sending your female child to camp only to find out that she started her period and the counselor that had to help her was a male? Do you want your female child walking in on a male urinating? It happens, it really does....so find out what the policy is and make sure that unless it is a co-ed camp, the counselors' sex is the same as your child's.
What if my child needs/wants to get in touch with me?
What camp counselors won't tell you is that we try to discourage your kid from calling you. You have to understand, you drop your child off, and for the first two nights we are dealing with homesickness not just from your child, but from 20 other children (and that's just in one group). If we let your child call you, it only makes things worse.
The other part to this is, that sometimes your kid will get hurt. Most of the time it's minor, a bruise or bump, but sometimes your kid gets stung, or starts vomiting etc. and generally they are seen by the nurse. Parents are rarely called unless it is severe (broken bone, allergic reaction). If I were you I would draw a line. Maybe you don't want to hear about every scratch, but you do want to know if your child starts vomiting, let the head person at the camp know, also take some time to contact a nurse, and be sure that they understand just how much you want to know.
Where is their nearest hospital?
Now remember, the point in being at camp is to be AWAY, but you don't want to be so far away that it is going to take 45 minutes to get hospital service. Make sure there is a hospital within 15 minutes of the camp if not closer.
Free from debris.
What you may not know about camp, is that there are several times your child will be walking around in the dark. Midnight nature hikes, games played at night etc. are a camp tradition. It's fun yes, but you need to make sure that the camp is clear of debris. When you go for a visit, is there a whole bunch of trash on the grounds? If so...you may want to reconsider. Your kids will already be dodging tree roots, and the random bunny rabbit on the trail, you don't want to add trash to the mix.
Many times parents send their kids to camp with medication (Tylenol, inhalers, antibiotics etc.). No matter how many notices the camp sends out we always have those parents that cry out in protest that we don't let your children keep their medication with them. Believe me, you don't want your child to be able to keep their medication. Think of it this way, you send your kid to camp and we let them keep their Tylenol. Their new friend says "I have a headache", of course your kid shares their Tylenol. If that kid has an allergy to Tylenol we have a BIG problem on our hands. Most of the time, camps will ask that you turn all medication in to the nurse. The counselors are then given your child's emergency medications (inhalers, epi-pens etc.). All pills are kept with the nurse and your child is then escorted to the nurse along with all other children who have a medication on a schedule every day. If a counselor forgets to bring them, the nurse notifies the counselor and the child is brought in. As a parent, you should notify the nurse and counselors of things you are OK with your child taking. Maybe I'm OK with my kid taking an aspirin for a headache, but I know Pepto doesn't agree with them, that's something to tell the nurse. Also, you need to get your child on the same medication schedule the camp has. If they give medication every day at 9am and 9pm, put your kid on that same schedule a week before they leave home so they get used to it.
The list of stuff not to bring:
In addition to receiving a list of things to bring, most camps will send a list of things not to bring. Some are obvious (no guns, no knives etc.) But every year parents send their children with candy, game boys, I-pods, cell phones etc. Then get upset when counselors confiscate them. So I'm going to give you the skinny on why we ask you not to send that stuff with your kid. We don't want your child bringing food or candy because we know what is in the woods better than you do. There's nothing like being woken up in the middle of the night to children screaming because there is a raccoon in their tent. I've worked at a camp where there were bears in the woods. A raccoon we can easily get rid of...but a bear??? We have to snatch your kids up and wait for it to leave. Wild animals are attracted to whatever foods we have to offer. Counselors go through a training as to how to dispose of leftover food, but we can't do anything about the food that your kid is hiding in their tent. It is a serious safety thing. DON'T let them bring it.
The point in going to camp is to get away from distractions, when you send your kid to camp with an i-pod, game boy, or tablet you are only allowing them to bring home to camp with them. Furthermore, inevidably, the device gets broken or stolen, then we have parents who are angry with US. Our job is to keep your kids safe and make sure they have fun, every moment we spend looking for their lost device is time that we are not spending watching your child.
One of the hardest things to do as a parent is let your child out of your sight for long periods of time. I can say from a camp counselor perspective, it's also one of the worst things you can do to your children if they aren't prepared. Instead of having your child go to camp for two weeks on their first time out, try a short stint first. Some camps have a "first timer" (about three days long), usually those are offered at the beginning of the summer. Then allow them to go for a longer two week period.
What you don't know can be painful!
A lot of kids love horses, and kids talk their parents into signing them up for a horse program at camp. We had some where the kids would go on a trek from one end of the state and back, and some just to a neighboring town. The older the child was, the longer the trek. Here's the thing: we would have girls come back MISERABLE, and parents would want to swear the camp off forever, but truthfully the fault was in lack of preparation on the parent's part. Maybe my daughter loves horseback riding, and she THINKS she wants to do it day in and day out for a week, but when you go on a trek across the state, they don't always stop somewhere that has indoor plumbing and electricity. Is she going to be OK with that, or is she the kind of girl that can't live without her blow dryer? Be honest with your kid. Be prepared to tell them exactly how it will be.
There are also programs that are mainly about water activities. It would always break my heart when kids would come into a water program, and find out that they wanted to try riding horses, or spend some time on crafts. Because you are the parent, and you have paid for a specific program, we can't change your child's program mid-week. The first time you send your kids to camp, send them in a program where they do a bit of everything. This will give them a good idea of what they like, and what they don't really care for, then look into some specialized activities.
If my child forgets.....
First let me say, if you forget to pack something for your child it's completely your fault. Generally the camp will try to send a list stating what your child should bring. We do try to encourage kids to share some things if someone else forgot (toothpaste, soap etc.), but you need to do everything you can to pack well for your child. Some camps have a "store" where the child can purchase needed/wanted items, but not all do so please send them prepared. There's nothing like having to figure out what to do with a child who has forgotten to pack a swimsuit.
Overall picking a good camp is part research and part preparation. I would encourage you to do both. I know if you are reading this you love your children enough to want to do the best for them, so keep it up! Let them have fun, let go, but always do so in a safe environment.
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