by Cathy Ashby
Traditional camps might still offer kids the opportunity to experience a low-tech life that’s in tune with Mother Nature, but the explosive growth of the summer camp industry and the Internet’s ever-expanding capabilities have changed the ways we research the programs for our children.
There are more camp choices than ever. From adventure to academics, sports to spirituality, summer programs now reach far beyond the still-popular outdoor-style camps that many of us enjoyed. Even more astonishing than the number of programs the American Camp Association puts that number at close to 12,000 in the U.S. today is the ease with which parents can now find, say, a wind-surfing adventure program in California or a week-long guitar clinic in Rhode Island.
The Internet puts nearly all summer camps at your family’s fingertips. That’s quite a change, considering that in the past, families might have known of five or six camps that friends or relatives attended.
Armed with Information
“Camp directors used to spend 90 percent of their first phone call with parents explaining how everything works at the camp, the prices, the options, etc.,” says Andy Pritkin, owner/director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Columbus, NJ.
“Now, most parents I speak with have that information already, and the questions are much more specific, the conversations are more customized, and the outcomes are generally better for both parties. Some parents have literally read my entire website word-for-word.”
On websites, camp personnel can provide details, photographs, videos, testimonials and more in an interactive and engaging way. Far more information is packaged this way than in the traditional glossy brochure.
Ann Sheets, the president of the American Camp Association, believes this is a big plus for parents: “Camps can provide not only the basic information about location, dates and costs, they can include videos from the camp and detailed information about programs, activities, staffing, what to bring, camp history and comments from current campers.”
Some websites facilitate not only camp shopping, but the nitty-gritty details of enrollment. “At Germantown Academy Summer Programs, we offer camper families the ability to gather information, register their children, pay in full or leave a deposit, and then complete health forms and other documents online,” says the Fort Washington, PA camp’s director, Larry S. Kraut.
“Look for services that interest you,” he advises online camp shoppers. “For example, our camp offers ex--tended day, transportation and lunch services. These value added services mean a lot to working parents.”
Pritkin has taken his website “to the next level, where parents and campers choose their weekly electives online, view daily photo albums with more than 100 pictures, check out our camp web-cam from their desk at work, change their contact info whenever they want, register and communicate with the director or their child’s division leader via e-mail.”
Says Sheets, “The Internet makes looking for a camp both easier and harder easier because there is more detailed information about camps; harder because there are more choices to consider.”
Contact Is Important
“A camp’s website should be considered an introduction, not the only source of information,” says Sheets.
Kraut agrees: “Websites are limited in that that they can’t respond to all concerns or questions. Parents should speak to staff when seeking information that is specific to their child’s needs and the kinds of experiences that the camp will provide.
“It is also important to get a sense of the tone, or culture of the camp. If the staff member is helpful, courteous and supportive to the parent’s questions, then it can probably be inferred that during the summer the staff will mirror that approach.”
Pritkin is emphatic on this point. “The only way to ensure that a camp’s website truly represents it is to meet the director personally,” he says. “It all starts from the top. It is also imperative that you go to the facility and see it. Website photos can be deceiving. Meet with the folks who run the camp. Ask them questions about their philosophy of children and staff.
“If the answers come off sounding like sound bites from a website or a brochure, dig deeper. You should have a level of comfort with the camp that you can trust them. And trusting other people with your children is a huge leap of faith.”
An Internet search is an excellent place to start, but a real conversation about your child’s particular needs will go a long way toward ensuring a successful camp experience.
Cathy Ashby is a former camp director and the editor of Chesapeake Family magazine.