Choosing the Right Day Camp for Your Child

Story by Christa Melnyk Hines

Day camps come in all shapes and sizes, appealing to a range of interests and ages. Here's how to find a camp that invests in your child by creating an unforgettable experience where they'll meet new friends, gain self-confidence and learn new skills – all while giving you peace of mind.

Begin with basics

First determine your schedule needs. Some camps are only a few hours a day while others are structured to work well with a working parent's schedule. Figure out if you'll need to arrange before or after care.

From there, seek a camp with "caring staff, fun programs and a dedication to the health and safety of the campers," says camp director DD Gass.

Match the camp with your child's interests

From computer coding to robotics and sports, day camps offer kids the opportunity to try all kinds of new activities. If your child isn't interested in a camp that specializes in one activity, choose a more traditional camp that offers a wide range of activities throughout the session.

"Make sure there's a healthy balance between structure and choice," says Jim Spearin, senior vice president of Youth Development for the YMCA.

Consider the culture

Ask for referrals from trusted family and friends. "Choose a camp that welcomes parents as partners in their experience," Jim says. "Parents should always feel welcome to come visit during camp. There should be planned activities for both parent and camper to enjoy together such as special events or campouts."

Seek qualified, organized staff

Camp employees should be licensed, certified and trained in sexual/child abuse prevention, first aid and CPR. Are background checks required for camp counselors? Parents could also ask if the camp checks employment histories and references.

Find out how camp leaders are supervised and how they plan for emergencies, including natural disasters, intruders and other threats. Also consider the child-to-staff ratio. Will your child feel lost in a group that's too big, even if it meets state criteria?

"It's vitally important for staff to have child development knowledge and experience to ensure that appropriate, engaging and enriching activities are offered," says Katrina Ball, a childcare resource and referral director.

Try it before you buy

Attend a camp expo or camp fair to find out what options exist in the area. Some organizations feature their own camp fairs and mini-camps during the spring for families to try.

"As a parent you know your child best and what program would be best for them. Trust your instincts," Katrina says.

Calm butterflies

Many youngsters have a hard time adjusting to new situations and people and may feel scared or intimidated. Include them in the process of choosing a camp. Discuss the schedule of activities and what a typical day will look like.

"Children can help pack their lunch (if needed) and pack their backpack with the items they'll need for camp. This helps them know what they have in their backpack and know what they will need to bring home," says camp director DD Gass.

Find out if one of your child's friends would like to attend the camp with him. Attending orientations, visiting the campsite and meeting the staff prior to the beginning of camp can also help reduce any pre-camp jitters.

Don’t delay! Find a camp your child will enjoy by checking out our Summer Camps & Programs guide.