What to Consider When Choosing a Summer Camp

Going to camp can be an incredibly formative (and fun!) experience for a child. An opportunity to spread their wings in a safe environment, it can lead to lifelong friendships, new sets of skills, and even set kids up for success in college and beyond. To help parents through the process of camp selection and preparation, we asked Mike Sladden, director and owner of Camp Pathfinder, a 103-year-old boys’ camp located in Canada’s Algonquin Park, to walk us through what to consider while choosing a camp for your child. Here are his recommendations:

Verify credentials. First and foremost, make sure the camp is accredited. Like private schools, accredited camps conform to hundreds of standards. Finding one shouldn’t be hard—Sladden says there are accredited camps all over North America.

Think about size. How big is the camp? How many children are in the age group your child will be participating in? If the camp is tiny, Sladden notes, your son or daughter may only be interacting with a few people, while at a large camp they might feel lost in a sea of kids their age.

Find the right ratio. Asking about the ratio of counselors to campers is very important, Sladden advises, as well as understanding what that number actually means. You want to know the ratio of staff who are engaged with children as their job. At Camp Pathfinder, that number is 1:2, which Sladden acknowledges is rare; 1:4 to 1:6 are at the high end of what you’d look for.

Know the counselor vetting process. Sladden says asking the camp director a lot of questions about how camps hire, train, and vet their staff is an excellent idea, since those who do it correctly will be eager to discuss their methods. Many of the best camps will have “homegrown staff,” he notes, meaning campers can be put through leadership programs that prepare them to become counselors; a benefit to this is that camp directors will know the counselors from a young age, as well as their family. Homegrown or not, you’ll want to confirm that there’s a great deal of emphasis on training, and that background checks are performed on all staff members.

Ask about medical care. Find out how the camp is equipped to respond to health needs. Are there nurses and doctors on site? Are doctors on call? Are the staff trained as first responders? Is the camp part of the local EMS network so emergency care can arrive quickly if needed? Knowing the different layers of the camp’s health and medical infrastructure will help you sleep better at night.

Talk about the technology policy. Sladden firmly believes in the importance of giving kids a break from screens and online stimulation. Camp is a time to open them up to their surroundings and person-to-person social interactions, so look for camps where phones and gadgets must be put away. As for the tradeoff of your child not being able to email you? “That’s a good thing,” Sladden says.

Confront homesickness head-on. On every parent’s mind, Sladden says, is the issue of homesickness. Asking straightforward questions about how it’s handled at camp will benefit both adults and the campers who might not have the words to express their anxiety. Find out how the camp acknowledges and normalizes homesickness so the child stays goal-focused (say, achieving a level in swimming or going on a 3-day trip with pals) and time is framed in a positive way. You’ll want to look for a camp that lets your child express feelings out in the open, Sladden advises, and helps them realize that time spent away from camp is short, sweet, and worth taking advantage of.

Look into leadership development. As children get older, opportunities for leadership development become increasingly valuable. Ask whether the camp offers kids the chance to be recruited into the staff, resume-building experiences that could be included on college applications, or programming that can be applied toward community service responsibilities that are commonly required of teenagers. It’s also good to get a sense of the lifelong community campers are entering into. A strong alumni association and social network are usually signs that a camp has a strong and vibrant culture.

Resist the short session. Camp is a place where you have to settle in and find your independence, get along with everybody, learn the activities, and immerse yourself in the culture, Sladden says. Therefore, a weeklong “camp lite” experience just isn’t going to cut it. He recommends taking the camp director’s advice on what a good session length is for your child’s age, and he believes in a two-week minimum. For campers in the 9- to 10-year-old age range, and kids who have been to camp before, he thinks 3 weeks to one month is a good length of time.

Do your homework. Request references, and try to get a firsthand take on what the camp entails. A great way to learn about a camp’s culture and what the experience for your child will be like is to talk to the families of other campers, so ask the director to put you in touch with a parent. Also, arrange a tour of the camp and see if the director is willing to meet with you in person.

Inquire about tuition support. Camp can be very expensive (it takes a lot of money to run a high quality operation). However, many camps have scholarship funds that can pay for some or even all of a camper’s tuition, so ask the director about ways to make the cost more within your family’s reach.

TSG Tip 158 provided by Mike Sladden, owner and director of Camp Pathfinder in Algonquin Park, Canada.