Happy campers

As we crest the hump of chilly spring days, the hints of warm sun bring thoughts of summer vacation. As a parent, how can you sift through the hundreds of summer camps available in Western North Carolina and elsewhere and be reasonably confident that your child will have a happy and successful camp experience? Research and preparation are key considerations, as well as keeping in touch with your child’s needs and aspirations.

Youth adventure: Kayaks await their next excursion at one of WNC’s many summer camps. Photo By Anna Ferguson

The Internet is an excellent place to start. Among the best Web sites are: the American Camp Association (www.acacamps.org), the Children & Nature Network (www.cnaturenet.org) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (www.aap.org).

No risky business

Safety is crucial. It’s essential to examine the risk-management techniques of any group whose business involves taking care of people. All camps, especially adventure-based programs, need to have a solid record of safety and proactive risk-management protocols.

Call the camp’s administrative office and ask directly about its safety record—don’t be shy. If they are real professionals, they’ll answer your questions directly and openly. Staffing is another vital component of risk management. Ask how employees are hired, screened and trained, as well as the level of experience required. Background checks should be standard—if they’re not, find another camp.

Philosophy is not just for Socrates

Another way to evaluate summer camps is to consider its mission or philosophy. Why was the camp created in the first place? This could help you narrow your choices. If you’re looking for a faith-based group, inquire through your church or place of worship. If you’re seeking a weight-loss camp or rock-climbing adventure, ask the admissions staff about what they hope to provide for your child while he or she is in their care. Do they aim to impart certain skills or a boost in self-confidence? A camp’s philosophy can have a direct impact on your child’s experience there.

Dust off the history books

While we all know that quality and quantity are not the same thing, it’s important to ask how long a camp has been around. The longer a camp has been in operation, the greater the odds that it’s doing something right.

Ask about the camp’s history and what changes it’s been through: Did it start as an arts camp and then add an adventure program? Is this the first year a music program has been offered? Don’t take promotional materials at face value—be sure to check out the specifics.

What did you do last summer?

One of the most effective ways to find out what a camp is really like is to talk to someone who’s been there. As with other businesses, word of mouth is one of the best ways to gauge a camp’s quality.

Most camps can help you with this, and if your child is old enough, have them talk directly (on the phone or in person) with a former camper. As many parents know, peer endorsements are one way to convince a teenager of the benefits of an experience.

Give the gift of a new hobby or skill

Another element to consider when choosing a camp is your child’s hopes and dreams. What do they love? Horseback riding or video games? Do they dig rock climbing, or would they rather paint the day away? Try to choose the camp within your means that aligns most closely with the child’s passions and aspirations yet can also also expose him or her to new things—whether it’s a different way to think about life or a new approach to playing a favorite instrument. Equally important to consider are areas where your child might have challenges. Do they need a little more self-confidence? Is there a health issue? All of these questions can help lead you to the right camp for your child.

Talk, talk, talk it out

Last but definitely not least, talk with your child about summer camp. If you have a preteen or teenager, give them several options and let them choose the camp. Be realistic about their abilities, and don’t overschedule them during their summer break: If they’re stressed or just not interested in the activities offered, you may have wasted your investment in the camp. A conversation with your child about his or her upcoming experience is definitely a key to creating happy memories—and maybe even a return trip next year.

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