Matching Kids With Camps

by Tish Davidson

Finding the Right Camp

Here are organizations that visit camps regularly to gain first-hand knowledge of their strengths and weakness. They offer free guidance and matching services to help families narrow their camp choices.

• American Camping Association,
888-917-2267, www.acacamps.org

• Camp and Tour Consultants,
800-609-2267, www.campandtour.com

• Camp Connection, 800-775-6508

• Camp Experts, 610-658-0744, www.campexperts.com

• National Camp Association,
800-966-CAMP, www.summercamp.org

• The Summer Lady, 866-566-CAMP, www.thesummerlady.com

• Tips on Trips & Camps
866-222-TIPS, www.tipsontripsandcamps .com

Leslie Ausburn’s 8-year-old son went to sleep-away camp last summer. Although initially nervous, he had a fabulous time. His counselors say he was a leader in his cabin.

On the other hand, Lisa Alcente, a high school sophomore, went to soccer camp and came home disappointed. A serious athlete, Lisa felt the level of play at camp had not improved her skills.

With more than 6,000 residential camps in the U.S. to choose from, finding a camp where your child will fit in well can be a challenge.

Websites, brochures and DVDs can tell you about camp facilities, sessions, and cost. Talking to friends about their children’s experiences can tell you something about the camp structure and philosophy. However, each child is unique.

That you went to a camp and loved it or your neighbor’s child had a wonderful experience does not guarantee that your child will fit in at that same camp. You need to look at your child’s interests and personality for clues about whether he will make friends and fit comfortably into the social structure of the camp. Here are some things to consider:

Age. Camps usually take children across a broad age range — anywhere from 7 to 18 is normal. How many campers are the same age as your child? The more children around the same age, the bigger will be the pool of potential friends, and the more activities that will be geared to that age group.

If campers are divided by age for activities, those on either end of the age range could be grouped with older or younger campers. Depending on the maturity of the individual child, this arrangement can work, or it can create problems fitting in.

Experience. How many campers are first-timers at the camp and how many are returning campers? Although a large number of returning campers signals satisfaction with the camp, first-time campers generally fit in better when there is a substantial number of other first-timers.

“Pre-teens and middle school kids, both boys and girls, who have been at a camp for years form cliques, so if your child is new, you want to be especially particular about what camp to send them to,” says Dick Travis, who with his wife Ann runs The Summer Lady, a free camp consulting service.

Also, most children experience some homesickness while adjusting during the first week, which is why many camp experts recommend stays of two weeks or longer. Camps that have many new campers tend to have more experience helping kids with homesickness.

Structure. How intensely supervised are campers? Do counselors escort children from one activity to another? How many activities are required and how many are free choice?

Christian Coker went to a YMCA camp when he was ten. According to his mom, Sandra, “Chris likes river rafting and hates horseback riding.” Her advice is to discuss the activities with your child. If an activity your child despises or fears is a required activity, he might not feel comfortable.

Geography. Where do campers and counselors come from? Many camps attract 10 to 15 percent international campers and even more international counselors. Special interest camps can draw children from across the U.S. In more traditional camps, most of the campers come from within a 150-mile radius. Whether your child is comfortable meeting new and different people may affect how well he fits into the camp.

Status. Some camps attract mainly well-off kids, middle class kids or less affluent kids. Although it is healthy for children to make friends with all types of people, if nearly everyone else in the bunk goes to private school and has designer clothes, a pre-teen who goes to public school and buys jeans at Target might not find much common ground with her bunkmates.

Parents often hesitate to ask about status issues. One approach is to inquire what percentage of campers are public or private school students.

Watching camp videos also gives good clues about the type of family the camp caters to. If you see children in the video arriving by private jet at the camp airstrip (yes, there is actually a camp video that shows this), you’ll know something important about the campers’ backgrounds.

Philosophy. All camps have a philosophy that is either stated or implied. What matters is how this philosophy is put into practice. Ask the camp director how competition is handled.

“Some camps are very intensive and rah-rah. Others are more laid back,” says Lisa Mullen, a consultant for Tips on Trips and Camps, an organization that provides no-cost personalized matching services for families seeking summer camps.

Is there a lot of rivalry between bunks? Does everyone get to participate equally regardless of skill level? How is bullying handled? “Bullying is a big problem because it is often hidden from the counselors, but it is being addressed much better now than in the past,” says Travis. “Many camps bring in specialists before camp starts to educate the counselors about bullying.”

Religion, Race and Ethnicity. Will your child feel uncomfortable if she does not share the religious orientation of the camp? Does your child fit into the racial and ethnic mix of the camp?

Are there counselors whose background makes them good role models for your child? Parents who feel strongly about these issues need to be open with the camp director about their concerns.
Interests and Skills. If your child has a special interest, such as sports or theater, will the camp meet his needs? Most camps have long lists of available activities.

If your child is interested in archery, for example, be sure to find out how often archery is offered and how many campers participate.

If your child attends a skills camp, such as a sports or music camp, are his skills in line with the rest of the campers? Nothing kills a camp experience faster than a child discovering that his abilities are well above or below those of fellow campers.

Special Needs. Special needs range from restricted diets to the need for wheelchair access. In order to fit in and feel comfortable, the child’s special needs must be met in ways that do not make him stand out as “different” or open him to ridicule.

When in doubt, ask to talk to the parent of a former camper who had the same special need.

The Bottom Line. Find the camp that your child wants to attend, not the one that his brother went to or your husband attended as a child. Interview the camp director. Ask for names of parents of former campers that you can talk to.
Of course, the camp will give you the names of happy campers, but you can tell a lot about the camp by what other parents liked and disliked about it. Finally, remember what Lisa Mullen tells her clients. “There is a camp that is right for every child, but every child is not right for every camp.”

Tish Davidson is a freelance writer.