The Road to the Right Camp
A guide for the anxious parent, from a father who survived the process.
By Stephen Jermanok
February 10, 2008
Word of mouth is still the number one referral source for choosing an overnight camp, according to Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association. And word of mouth was exactly what inspired us to drive four hours to find a camp for our then 9-year-old son, Jake, on a quiet lake at the foot of the Green Mountains. Kids were canoeing, sailing, or chilling in their bunks, reading the latest Harry Potter. I was ready to sign Jake up on the spot. When I turned to him after our little tour and asked him what he thought, Jake shrugged and said, "I don't know."
My son's the strong, silent type, so I'm accustomed to his vague answers, but after driving so far to see this place, I wanted more.
"Whaddya mean, 'I don't know'?" said Dad.
"I don't know," said son, peeved that I repeated his words.
"Well, do you like the camp?" asked Mom.
"I guess," said the underwhelmed son.
End of conversation. Clearly, even if I put Jake into one of Jack Bauer's interrogation rooms, I wasn't going to get anything more than "I'm thirsty." Weeks went by, and we learned that Jake still wanted to go to overnight camp, just not a traditional camp solely based on paddling, sailing, and hiking, since our family already does a lot of nature-based activities. He wanted something different. We called more camps, saw countless videos of happy kids splashing in water, some endorsed by celebrities like David Hyde Pierce from Frasier fame, and talked to other parents, who all recommended another camp to check out. We were getting desperate. It was time to call on Lori Lass.
PTO president and Newton mother extraordinaire, Lori had thoroughly worked the system to select an overnight camp for her daughter, Hannah. She had met with a camp consultant to select six possible camps, trimmed that list to three camps to visit, and eventually chose Camp Schodack in upstate New York. When we met the director of Camp Schodack, who lived nearby, Jake was sold on the opportunity to water-ski, rock climb, zip line, go-kart, and horseback ride, sports he rarely gets to experience.
Thanks to our friend, we found the right place for Jake. When we picked him up after his 3 1/2-week outing last summer, my quiet boy couldn't stop talking about all his adventures, including water-skiing slalom and clambering up the hardest rock-climbing course. Andhe's already excited about returning this summer. But obviously we lucked out. If we had to go through the process again - a process many parents are facing right now - I'd follow this expert advice:
"The popular notion of camp is it's just plain fun. Parents don't think of this as education," says Christopher Thurber, school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy and author of the best-selling The Summer Camp Handbook. "If parents just glanced at some of the research done by the ACA, they'll suddenly realize that if my kid spends a couple weeks at overnight camp, their growth in self-esteem, social skills, independence, physical and thinking skills, and sense of adventure is going to grow faster than if they were doing any other home-based activity," says Thurber. "That's worth my money and that's worth the time and energy I'm going to spend looking for the right camp," he emphasizes.
The first thing to consider is proper timing. Most children are in the 8- to 10-year-old range when first contemplating overnight camp. If your son or daughter is expressing a lot of interest in going away, that's usually a good indicator that the time is right to start your search. Thurber notes that if your child is forced into summer camp, he or she is more likely to be homesick than the child who is involved in the selection process. "We find that parents who make a decision about camp with their child will find that their child's success at camp is that much greater," the ACA's Smith says "Make the decision together, discussing expectations, desires, and matching that camp to your child's needs."
The ACA has more than 2,400 accredited camps in their database, campparents.org. Another popular website is mysummercamps.com, which lists more than 17,000 camps, including ones in Canada. These numbers are overwhelming, which is why many parents decide to work with a camp consultant. These consultants, or "camp ladies," as they're often called, get a referral fee from the camp selected and thus are free to all families. Although camp recommendations from friends are important, they might not know about the best camp for your particular child. That's where consultants can help.
"It comes down to a very individual basis," says Abby Shapiro, a consultant with CampSource in Newton (campsourcenetwork.com), the firm Lass used. "We sit down with each camper and come up with a list of parameters. How long and how far do you want to go? What kind of activities is your child interested in? Are you interested in a structured program, where they're going to get a taste for everything, or a more choice-driven program? Do you want a religion-based camp? What are your budget restrictions? There are a lot of different components that go into finding the right camp," says Shapiro.
Other items to consider are whether you want a same-sex or coed camp and whether you should opt for a nature-based traditional camp or go with a more specialized camp that focuses on music, sports, or something else. There are also camps geared to children with ADHD, asthma, diabetes, and cancer. Many kids today will combine a traditional camp with a more specialized program to get the best of both worlds. "My first inclination is to provide a contrast to what you're getting the rest of the year," Thurber says. "If children have academics in a coed setting, it might be nice to spend the summer just with the boys or girls. In both coed and single-sex situations, it's great for boys to see strong male role models who are not afraid to give each other a hug, or for girls to see women in charge in strong leadership roles."
A CLEARER PICTURE
Parents might also find it worthwhile to see a prospective camp the summer before. "It helps so much for your child to visualize where they're going to sleep and eat," Lass says. When she visited Camp Schodack with Hannah, the mercury was near 100 degrees. "The director called off all afternoon activities so the kids could go swimming. That was a really good sign that the camp could be flexible with the schedule," she says.
Lass also saw the new go-kart track being built, an important sign that Schodack was solvent and putting money back into the camp. Once you have a director's undivided attention, ask about the staff-to-child ratio. And find out how many members of the staff were once campers there. Also ask: What percentage of the children return each summer? How can I communicate with my child at camp? What is your stance on computers, video games, and iPods in the bunk? Can you walk me through your daily schedule?
Thurber notes that you shouldn't get hung up on cost initially. "Find a camp that's best suited for your child and then figure out affordability. Many camps offer financial aid, or you can often barter for payment, like have your son play the bugle at reveille and taps for a discounted price."
Once you locate that perfect camp, realize that it's normal for parents to have anxiety about sending loved ones away for so long. It's also natural for kids to be homesick. Thurber, who created a DVD for the ACA on overcoming homesickness called The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, advises parents to tell their child that he or she will probably miss something from home, but that's OK.
Having a letter waiting for your child when he or she arrives at camp will certainly help. Jake even wrote back.
Freelancer Stephen Jermanok lives in Newton and is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.