How Do I Know A Camp Is Awesome? What Parents Should Know...

(In conversation with a parent and fellow-entrepreneur this week, the topic of planning summer activities for our kids came up (are you caught up? I'm not!) She suggested that I capture here some of what I shared with her.)You've figured out what they want to do, and with so many options, how do you know when a summer program is right for your child and your family? A word-of-mouth reference about a program that is new to your family is great. And there are lots of great camp guides out there. The lists can often be long (why does "W" have to come so far after "A"?) and the publisher may not have the time to ask the questions that you might need answered. When you don't already have the inside scoop, here's how to get it.What you want to check ahead of time...

  • In Chicago, all children's programs are required to be licensed as a Children's Activities Facility. Being licensed as such means that all staff that interacts with your child has been through a fingerprint-based state-police background check and that the Fire and Building departments have inspected the facility for safety. Not sure? You can check how a business is licensed at this website.
  • What's the buzz? Is the business thriving or otherwise? 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. Particularly with early registration, you want to know that this business will be around when summer rolls around and info about expansion or contraction, if you can detect it, could be useful.

What you want to ask...

  • What is the max size of the camp? What is the leader:camper ratio?
  • 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 for 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?
  • In addition to licensing, are there staff members trained and certified in CPR, Basic Life-Support and First Aid?
  • 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.
  • What will the day/week be like? Even if you've heard great things, knowing what to expect can help some children to jump in and enjoy themselves more quickly in a new environment.

What you want to keep seeing...

  • 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 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 can be messy, but does the team work together in a way that shows that the program is well-planned?
  • Good programs will ask for a lot of information from you on registration forms. Are these forms just pieces of paper, or is the staff using that information to contribute to your child's safety and enjoyment?
  • If your child is learning a new skill, are they enjoying the process? Are they feeling judged or encouraged?
  • 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...)

What programs want you to remember (at least from our perspective...)

  • It's a super-fun job, and not an easy job.
  • A good 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 child's experience great.
  • About those forms...please fill them out legibly and completely. We use them.
  • Be on time for pick-up time. Kids can quickly become uncomfortable (even with the best attempt to assuage any fear about your whereabouts), and the hard-working staff at the great place that you have chosen has other responsibilities once the programming for the day is over...like getting ready to make tomorrow as awesome as today.
  • The range of special needs can be very broad. The allergens alone that a skilled team might be watching for during any camp could span from peanuts to strawberries to bees to rabbit fur (yup, on a camper's boots.) Know that we care about each and every camper.
  • Be friendly and respectful of the staff to which you have entrusted your child. A great set of operating guidelines is useless without great people that enjoy being at work and working with one another and your child. They are the main ingredient that makes a program amazing...everything else is just a recipe.

(ps- We're working our way to 250 votes in a quest to qualify for a potential $250K grant. Would you vote for us? No money. Just a few clicks and your confidence. And here you can read more about why it's so important to us. Thanks so much!)