Choosing a Camp
Choosing the Best Summer Camp in America for Your Child
Published- December, 2005
There are over 8,000 residential summer camps in the United States and Canada. Picking the best camp from so many may seem like a huge task. Follow the “top ten” list below and you will find the best camp for your child. It may not be the same camp that I would choose for my son or that your neighbor would choose for their daughter, but it will be the best camp for your child.
10. Family Decision– First of all, include your child in the decision. Picking a camp and sending your child away without involving them in the decision is the best way to send them to the worst camp in America. Start the process early. Exceptional camps may fill some sessions as early as September (yes, almost a year before the summer camp season). Many families will begin the camp search a full year before they are planning for their child to attend.
9. Camp Philosophy- Camps can be for fun or for reforming juvenile delinquents, for furthering a camper’s religious education or for interacting with children of many faiths, for learning a sport or to de-emphasize competition. Ask camps for their mission statement and then look at their literature and camp video to see how the mission of the camp is woven into the overall camp philosophy.
8. Program- What sort of experience are you looking for? There are high adventure camps, traditional camps with a range of activities, skateboarding camps, football camps, computer camps, and the list goes on. The length of the camp session can make a big difference in the effectiveness of a camp program. In general, longer sessions mean more skill development. After you have thought about philosophy and program, you are ready to start making your “long list” of camps. Some helpful resources are CampPage.com or acacamps.com for a starting point to make your initial list of possibilities.
7. Cost- Many wonderful camps pay their staff well, use the best program equipment, have a great camper-to-staff ratio, and constantly work on improving their facility. Those camps will also, by necessity, charge a higher tuition than camps that pay low salaries and have aging program equipment. Some low-cost camps are still great camps because they are supported by an organization that supplements camper fees or because of the nature of their program offerings. Some camps offer discounts for financially strapped families. Grandparents often send their grandchildren to an outstanding camp that would normally be beyond the means of their family.
6. Location- How close to home is the camp? If it is too close to home, part of the camp experience may be lost. Too far from home & travel costs can become an issue. Other considerations with location include the temperature during the summer, and activities suitable to the geographic region.
5. Size- The size of a camp can mean the size of the facility or how many campers are in the facility. If the camp is huge, lets say 500 or 750 campers, it can seem smaller if there are meaningful ways to segment the group. It is important to ensure that campers in these smaller segments are still getting the full camp experience.
4. Staff- The composition of the staff is, for most parents, the most important consideration in choosing a great camp. How long have the directors been at the helm and what are their priorities when selecting staff. Do they conduct background checks? What percentage of the staff is foreign? What is the staff-to-camper ratio? What is the age and experience of the staff? There is no “right” answer to these questions, but the answers you receive might spark a deeper conversation about a camp’s staffing philosophy.
3. Standards- How is the camp program evaluated and improved? There are numerous organizations that grant accreditation to camps- the ACA, AEE, CCA, GSA, BCCA, and the list goes on. The ACA, American Camping Association, is by far the largest accrediting organization for camps. Find out what organizations accredit the camps on your list and ask about the accreditation. Many excellent camps are not accredited but should be prepared to tell you how their program is evaluated and improved in an ongoing fashion.
2. References- Will the camp give you references in your area to call? Most camps are happy to provide a list of families that have agreed to be a reference. Once you have narrowed the choices down, call a few families and ask them why they chose the camp and what they feel are the top attributes of the camp. That is the person to ask about the quality of the camp food, the staff, and the camp “feel”.
1. Facility- Visit the camp, if possible. Most camps will be happy to give you a camp tour that fits your schedule. There is no better way to find out about a camp than by going in a cabin, seeing the dining facility and to converse with the camp staff as you walk around; even better, schedule your tour during the summer to see the camp in action. Meeting the directors and asking them questions in person is the next best alternative if you cannot visit the camp facility in person. If you cannot visit in person, see if a camp representative will be visiting your area. Many camps will schedule visits to the geographic areas they serve. A phone call to the camp may be the only practical way to speak to someone in the camp administration. Regardless of whether it is in person or over the phone, ask a camp representative what she feels are the special qualities of her camp. Don’t just go through a list of questions- talk about your child and engage the camp representative in conversation about the meaning of a camp experience.
After going through the top ten list, you should be able to have the 8,000 choices narrowed down to the “Best Camp in America” for your child. You will then be able to drop her off on opening day with confidence about the experience she is going to have while at camp.
Camp Director, Camp High Rocks for Boys
Mr. Birdsong has been involved in Summer Camping for 30 years and has been a camp director for nineteen years. He has served on the National Accreditation Committee of the Association for Experiential Education and served on the BSA National Camp School staff.