Three Steps to Choosing a Summer Camp
Here is an article that I wrote for new parents going through the process of finding a camp for their child.
Three Tips to Choose the “Right” Summer Camp
Finding the right summer camp for your child can be a difficult and time-consuming task. Every child is different, and there are so many camp options that the decision can feel overwhelming.
Generally speaking, your task will be much easier if you are looking for a specialty program. For example, if you are looking for an advanced tennis program because the main goal is to improve little Jimmy’s blistering forehand, your options (and your criteria for selection) are much more limited. 40 – love.
However, your search for what I call a “whole child,” traditional overnight camp likely will be much more complicated. There are so many factors to consider including the activities offered, culture, staff, geographic location, etc.
But what makes it even more challenging is that, at least at first blush, THEY ALL LOOK SO SIMILAR! The websites show smiling children doing fun things. The videos have upbeat music playing to a visual backdrop of waterskiing children and pine trees glistening in the summer sun. So if you are new to the amazing world of summer camp, “what to do” say you?
Well, I’m here to help. There are certain mistakes that I have seen parents make in choosing a camp for their child, and I also know the right questions to ask to help you narrow down your decision. Okay, here goes.
Step 1 – Narrow Your Options to Three
When we were cave people, we ate berries and meat. Simple and sustaining. Now there are literally 150 choices of cereal in the supermarket. We humans don’t like too many choices – it clutters our brains.
You simply cannot do your due diligence until you limit your choices to three possible camps. You can do this based on a combination of price, geographical location, recommendations from friends, camp review websites (e.g., campratingz.com), activity offerings, whether the program is free-choice or bunk-driven, and/or camp consultants.
A word of caution here. None of these factors listed above when considered individually should be dispositive for you.
• Do not make the assumption that the pricier the camp the better the experience. Choosing a camp is not like buying a car – paying more does not do anything to ensure a better “product.” It is all about the fit of a camp and not about which one looks shinier.
• Do not get too hung up on how far away a camp is located from you. The difference between a two-hour and four-hour drive from your house certainly matters in terms of convenience but to make this a litmus test might be a bit short-sighted.
• Recommendations from friends is a great way to find a camp. You also need to consider whether your friend’s camp is great for her Johnny (super sporty) but not necessarily for your Jimmy (creative and musical).
• Working with camp consultants can be a great option. When doing so though, make sure to ask them to send to you no more than five options or so. The last thing you need is to receive the names of 25 camps that all are supposedly a “great fit.” Also, make sure you provide information about your child’s personality and not just the types of activities she likes. While Suzy may enjoy sports, she may not enjoy the competitive focus of some camps.
• Most parents choose a camp based on the activities that it offers. Based on my experience, this is not the criteria most likely to assist you in your search for the best fit for your child. Explaining a summer camp by listing the activities it offers is like describing the taste of a brownie by listing the ingredients. In reality, the camp you select might have the greatest activities known to humankind and exactly the ones that junior loves, but if his personality and the culture of the camp are mismatched, it matters not. There will be no happy tears on pick-up day, and the camp you selected will continue to have the best activities in the western hemisphere.
Step 2 – Talk to or Meet with the Camp Director
Once you have your three possible choices, now the real work begins.
To me, the most important thing you can do in making this choice is to speak with, either on the phone or in person, the camp director. Why? There are the three main critical roles that the camp director plays at most camps. Camp Directors:
1. set the culture of a camp that ultimately pervades only every aspect of the experience;
2. hire the staff who will be living with and caring for your children; and
3. make thousands of judgment-calls during the summer that directly impact your child.
When you choose a camp, what you really are doing is “hiring” the Camp Director (and everyone who works for the camp director) to work for you during the summer to care for your child. Essentially, the camp director steps into your shoes, and you need to interview the summer “you” to make sure that you are hiring the right person.
In order to get the best insight into a camp, make sure to ask open-ended questions and take note of what the camp director decides to emphasize or lead with in answer to any question. Here are a few suggestions of questions to ask:
A. “Please tell me about your staff.”
This seems like a basic, open-ended inquiry with obvious answers like, “they are great” and “they are skilled.” But parents should listen carefully to the camp director’s response and do some reading between the lines.
Consider the following two possible responses:
Response 1 – “We only hire Division I college athletes to teach our campers. They are very talented in their particular sport, and they have lots of experience with and really enjoy teaching children.”
Response 2 – “First and foremost, we look for kind, warm and caring staff who love working with children. They also have great skills to compliment their excellent nature and personalities.”
Both responses mentioned that the staff like working with kids, but camp director 1 clearly is emphasizing skills in staff hiring whereas camp director 2 is emphasizing personality. Which camp you choose may depend upon whether your primary interest is in having your children learn “hard” skills or if you are focused more upon finding a comfortable experience for the “whole child.” Of course, both camps may provide both experiences, and one option is not “better” than the other – it all depends upon your primary interest for your child and your child’s nature.
B. “What type of child does best at your camp”
To get the most honest response to this question, ask this question before you describe your child. Otherwise you run the risk of being “sold” instead of getting a real glimpse into the culture of the camp. And don’t let the director get away with generalities that apply to every camp like, “a child that likes to make friends.” If this question is answered well, you can get a good sense of the culture of this camp.
C. “Please tell me one thing that your camp does well and one thing that your camp could do better.”
Wow, this one is a doozy. As a camp director myself, this one would make me think long and hard.
First, the director must choose one thing out of everything that the camp does well to highlight. This is a tough decision, and it should give an insight into what the camp director (and thus by osmosis the camp itself) values most. Three potential responses immediately come to mind – culture, activities, facilities – and the one that is most important to the director will rise to the surface.
Second, to make matters worse, the director must reveal an imperfection in his/her camp. “What heresy! Such blasphemy! My camp is perfect!” Probably not. Summer camps are like people – no one is perfect but despite imperfections one can be perfect for someone.
How did I come up with this one – it is a variation of one of my favorite staff interview questions – what is something you are working on. In answer to this question, I have had potential staff say things like, “I am lazy” and “I am very sarcastic.” (Needless to say, those candidates were not hired). More than anything, this question gives me great insight into the judgment of the candidate.
This is also true for camp directors, though in this context, it is all about honesty and trust. If the response is “there really is nothing that I can point to that would improve our camp,” or “the only thing we could do better is not to be so awesome! Am I right?” you might want to question whether this camp director is worthy of your trust, and thus the title of “summer parent” to your child.
So what is a “good” response to this question? If I were a parent, I would like to hear something like “Whenever anything goes wrong at camp, the first place I look is in the mirror. I think about whether I wasn’t clear enough about something or if I hadn’t considered a possible consequence to an event. Being a camp director is not something that anyone can master. It is a life-long pursuit of unreachable perfection and an art not a science. I am good but I can do better every summer.” Now that I someone with whom I would consider entrusting my child.
Step 3 – Get Buy-In from Junior
After appropriately grilling your potential camp directors, you need to decide if your three initial choices have made the cut for Step 3. If you eliminated any camps from consideration, go back to the well, interview the new camp in consideration, and get to a place where you have three solid contenders that all feel good to you.
Now it is time to get junior’s opinion. Getting buy-in from your child on the camp selection can be a critical step in the process, particularly if your child is reticent to make the leap to overnight camp. Watch the videos from all three camps and ask your child which one “feels” right. After all of your research and question-asking, there is no way to guarantee a perfect fit, so this is all about “going with your gut.” And at this point, while you may be biased towards or against one of your options, all three have made the cut from your end, so why not let your child have input.
The bottom line is this: You have made the excellent decision to send your child to camp. As a parent, former camper and camp director, I wholly believe that this is one of the best decisions a parent can make. Have trust in your judgment, and Happy Camping!
Jake Labovitz is a happily recovering lawyer-turned-summer camp director and the owner of Windsor Mountain Summer Camp located in Windsor, New Hampshire and parent of two young children. Windsor Mountain Summer Camp is an overnight camp for children ages 7-16 with a focus on inspiring children to lead positive, compassionate and fulfilled lives through learning and play in a supportive, fun and diverse community. Jake can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-478-3166.