How to Choose an Awesome Summer Camp, Revisited (Again)
[originally published 2012, updated in 2017 and 2019]
I’m a parent like many of you and I’ve had to choose a summer camp for my own kids a zillion times. With so many options, how do you know when a summer program is right for your child and family? To help, I brought back our post from 2012 and updated it a bit. I hope this guide helps you make the best– no, the most awesome– choice for you and your family.
A word-of-mouth reference about a program new to your family is a great start and there are lots of great camp guides out there. The camp guides can be huge and the publisher may not have the time to ask the questions that you need asked and answered. The lists are often paid advertising and do not reflect a vetting process. When you don’t already have the inside scoop, here’s how to get it.
CHECK BEFORE EXPLORING THE CAMP FURTHER…
In Chicago, children’s programs are required to be licensed as a Children’s Activities Facility. Being licensed as such means that all staff who are present with your child have been through a fingerprint-based state-police background check and that the Fire and Building departments have inspected the facility for safety. Some companies that offer camp for kids are licensed differently (with a Limited Business License only) because they offer 60% or more adult programming (or other business, such as retail) and do not specialize in children’s programming. Not sure? You can check how a business is licensed at this website.
Where is the camp located? Is the camp site/facility secure? Is the entry and exit access-controlled by a system (for example, a self-locking door) or a person with eyes on the entrance at all times?
How does the camp’s price compare to other programs in the area? Does the price reflect the value that you expect from the provider?
Care.com suggests that average prices for specialty camps range from $500 to $1000 per week.
The American Camp Association cites that specialty camps, while sometimes more expensive than a general day-camp, “are able to provide an intense academic focus combined with a scenario-based, mission-specific objective that demands teamwork. This unique approach allows for amplification of the traditional camp experience. Not only are new friendships made, they are made stronger by the shared passions and interests that first attracted the participants. True individuality–based on natural strengths and abilties– is valued and utilized as labels are shed and facades fall away in the interest of teamwork and goal accomplishment. And, finally, dreams of what can be are realized as young people recognize their true capacity through doing well those things they love.”
In Chicago, if the camp fee is more than $600/week you may want to know more about what additional value the price is buying for you.
Is the camp local, national or global? If supporting your local businesses and community is important to you, you may want to understand the company structure, where it is headquartered and what community or organization benefits, particularly if you are spending a larger sum.
What’s the buzz? A simple browser search can show you what the business is up to, if they have recently been in the news (good or bad), what kind of organizations they associate with, etc. With early registration, you want to know that this business will be there for you when summer rolls around and a peek into how active they are can be a good indicator of the company’s health.
CONSIDER ASKING BEFORE REGISTERING…
What is the camp’s philosophy? Do they have one? Does it seem trendy or has it been consistent? Does it reflect an expertise that you expect from the camp?
What is the max size of the camp? What is the leader:camper ratio? What is the age-range of the campers? How are the ages grouped or not-grouped? There are pros and cons to mixing a large age-range and you will want to decide for yourself what is right for your child.
In addition to licensing for safety, how many staff members are trained and certified in CPR, Basic Life Support and First Aid? Optimally, every member of the staff is trained so that no student needs to wait for assistance in an emergency.
Any program that has their eye on managing allergen cross-contamination will be cleaning throughout the day. What kind of cleaning products are used? Are they used around the campers? This answer should resonate with the guidelines you use in your own home.
Is one particular allergen prohibited from the camp? If yes, and your child has an allergy, ask additional questions as a skilled team will be watching beyond meal/snack-time for childhood allergens that span from peanuts to pet dander, strawberries to silicone.
How does the camp play? Do the activities, including games, support empathy and other social-emotional skills? Some activities we might have thought fun when we were kids (for example, a dunk tank) set an example that a) you can get peer attention, even if it’s negative, by volunteering to be the target and, b) witnessing the embarrassment of someone else should be considered fun. Neither idea is great to telegraph to kids or adults, even if subconsciously.
Is the team made of seasonal employees or permanent staff? If the employees are seasonal, are they studying or working in education, child development or the camp’s specialty during the school-year? Great people who enjoy doing this work, working with a team and with children are the main ingredient that makes a program amazing…everything else is just a marketing recipe.
What will the day/week be like? Even if you’ve heard great things, knowing what to expect can help you determine if the daily mix is right for your child’s needs. Look for references to both fine-motor and gross-motor activities, open/unstructured time and, if applicable, instruction time, and ask about time indoors and outdoors– it’s summer!
Assuming your child likes fun, is the camp fun?
WHAT YOU WANT TO KEEP SEEING…
Were you asked about your child’s needs when you registered for the program? If not, how did the business respond when you brought it to their attention? If you can anticipate and describe a potential scenario relating your child, did they want to understand it and ask you questions about how to manage that scenario? How did they commit to handling it?
Were you welcomed on the first day and every day? After the first day, does the staff know your child’s name? How does the staff interact with other campers? Does your child need to have a name-badge to be recognized by the staff?
Does it smell good? Is the temperature right? Sunny or shady? Is your child going to be comfortable during the day?
Is it organized? Creative environments definitely get messy. Does the team work together in a way that shows that the program is well-planned and that the “mess” does not create a safety concern?
Good programs will ask for a lot of information from you on registration forms. Is the staff using that information to contribute to your child’s safety and experience? After camp has begun, is the staff relying on forms or do they seem to know your child?
If your child is learning a new skill, are they enjoying the process? Are they feeling judged or encouraged? Do they show an interest in learning or practicing more?
Is your child leaving the program with a smile on their face? (Ok, sometimes kids get sad because they don’t want to leave, but you know what I mean). Did they have fun? Did they make a new friend? Kids are great reporters when asked these questions in an open-ended way (e.g. “tell me about your favorite part of the day…”).
Sign-in/out and pick-up protocol shouldn’t be just for day one. Be glad if you are asked for identification from a team member you haven’t before met.
WHAT SUMMER PROGRAMS WANT YOU TO KNOW (AT LEAST FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE…)
It’s a super-fun job, and not an easy job. But an awesome job.
A healthy program will welcome your feedback. If something isn’t working, give the staff the opportunity to listen to your needs and make any necessary corrections to make your family’s experience great.
About those forms…please fill them out completely. We use the information to anticipate and respond to needs.
The range of special needs can be very broad. Please keep in mind if you see a camper behaving in a way that is different from your own that there may be more going on than meets the eye. Programs that support a range of needs help campers embrace diversity and practice inclusion.
Be on time for the last pick-up of the day. Kids can become uncomfortable (even with the best attempt to assuage any fear about your whereabouts), and the hard-working staff at the great place you have chosen has other responsibilities once the programming for the day is over…like getting ready to make tomorrow as awesome as today.
Do you have questions about a local camp? Because we work with a broad range of Chicago families throughout the year, we hear a lot on the grapevine. If you contact us and we don’t think that we are the best match or you just want to ask us, we are glad to help with a recommendation that can then answer your questions directly– just drop us a note here.
Like what we have to say? Maybe you’ll love our camps. Click here to register.