Today, as children’s lives are increasingly filled with academic drills and social media friendships, the life-changing impact of summer camp is more important than ever. Whether day- or overnight-camp, kids are provided with opportunities to safely choose their own adventures under the guidance of highly trained role models who are neither parent nor teacher.
Camp traditions, rituals, songs and activities are not “normal” in the real world, but are essential to camp. When campers stand up in front of the entire camp to sing, dance and be silly, that’s where the seeds of self-confidence are planted, friendships are made, and leadership blooms.
There are a dizzying number of summer camps in the Chicagoland area alone. Here are three tips to begin your decision making process:
1. What type of camp best suits my child?
Day camps offer a head-spinning variety of focus areas and activities. Talk with your child, not only about his or her interests, but also what he or she might enjoy learning. Consider the size and activity level of the camp: Would he or she prefer a large, active sports camp or a small, quieter arts camp? Show your child the camp website and talk about what a typical camp day might be like.
And remember that your child doesn’t have to leave the Chicagoland area to interact with nature. The McGaw YMCA summer day camp, for example, offers a specialty program designed to foster a love for the great outdoors, environmental science and adventure through visits to local forest preserves and state parks.
2. What works best for my family in terms of schedule and cost?
Even some half-day camps are offering before- or after-camp extended care to accommodate the needs of working parents and other siblings. If this is an important option, be sure to ask about the kinds of activities your child will be engaged in, and who will supervise.
Many camps offer financial aid to families. The McGaw YMCA, for example, accepts Child Care Assistance Program reimbursements, and offers a variety of scholarship opportunities through the Y and other partner programs. Be sure to register early to ensure the best opportunity for financial aid.
3. What staff training and safety factors should I look for?
Whether the day camp is accredited by the American Camping Association or not, check to make sure it is following their standards for day camps. Ask, for example, about the camper to staff ratios. The McGaw YMCA follows ACA recommended ratios, which are much lower than state guidelines. With a maximum 1 to 12 camper to staff ratio, every camper group is paired with a lead and assistant camp counselor plus up to two junior counselors.
Staff should be trained not only in CPR and other first aid skills, but also in behavior management techniques, stages of youth development, and ways to help bring kids out of their shell. Most camps have a returning staff rate of between 40-60 percent. If the rate is lower, find out why.
Camp staff are trained and experienced in helping kids expand their comfort zones by embracing new challenges. This may happen on the lake or during arts and crafts time, at a day camp down the street or a sleepaway camp in the woods. What matters is that kids have the opportunity to experience the boost in self-esteem, social skills and independence that summer camp provides.
Kaleena Escallier Slusser is the Senior Director for Youth Development at the McGaw YMCA Children’s Center.