Shopping around for camp? Are you asking these questions?

Summer camp (when done right) is much more than just a place to go while school is out. Camp has the ability to teach your child alternate skills they may not be learning in school, foster independence, provide new role models and friendships, and even provide an oasis from other more stressful aspects of their young life. But are you choosing a camp that actually lives up to this potential?

Mistake #1: Not asking about accreditation.
Did you know that there is no mandatory licensing for day camps in Ontario? That means that literally anyone can decide to start a camp. The Ontario Camping Association provides accreditation, which holds camps to high standards in a variety of categories. However, this process is completely voluntary. A camp who is accredited has already proven through a 2-year process (which included visitations) that they meet industry standards in safety, staffing, programming, and financial accountability. A camp that is not accredited should have to work that much harder to prove these qualifications to you as a discerning parent. (And if they don’t even know who the OCA is? Run the other way.)
– Is this camp accredited by the Ontario Camping Association?
– What other professional organizations are you a member of?

Mistake #2: Not asking about the qualifications of the owner/director.
Running a successful summer camp for children requires many important skills. For example: an understanding of age characteristics and stages of development, teaching/instructing skills, hiring/staff leadership, etc. There are many different paths to acquiring these skills, but they need to come from somewhere. At minimum, the director should have prior camp experience before becoming a director, and ideally will also have other qualifications such as an outdoor education or teaching degree.
– What is your prior experience working at summer camps?
– How long have you been a camp director?

– What are your qualifications to design a program for children?
– What is your day-to-day role within the camp?
– Is this a child-centred business, or is the camp a side project?

Mistake #3: Not considering all factors when comparing fees.
It’s easy to get hung up on the weekly base fee, but be careful that you also look at how much things will cost altogether. Some camps charge extra for the most popular activities, such as special guests or field trips. Some also charge extra for other necessities like lunch and extended care. What may look like a cheaper price may in fact be more expensive than an all-inclusive option, especially when you consider sibling and multi-week discounts.
– Are there any additional fees for lunch, activities, or extended care?
– Do you offer a sibling discount?
– Do you offer a discount for multiple weeks?
– Can you help me secure funding?

Mistake #4: Using price as your main (or only) point of comparison.
Of course you will have a budget that you need to work with. However, there are enough choices that even within this amount you will have room to shop around. Yes, there will be “extras” that you might get with a more expensive camp, but a camp’s overall quality has a lot more to do with their attention to detail and child-centred focus than the price. Cheaper isn’t always poorer quality (but sometimes it is) and more expensive isn’t always better (but sometimes it is). First ask yourself what is important to you and your child, and THEN look to see how you can best fit that into your budget. (Many camps offer their own funding, or may be able to help you source it elsewhere.)
– What am I hoping that my child will achieve this summer? What outcomes am I looking for?
– Will this camp meet my child’s needs?
– Does this camp match our values as a family?

Mistake #5: Not asking questions about the staff and training.
A camp may have “bells and whistles” but quality of staff is what will make or break your child’s experience.
– How are the staff selected?
– How (and for how long) are your staff trained? By whom?
– What is the average age of the counselling staff?
– What qualifications do they have?
– What percentage of your staff are returning this year?
– What is the camper to staff ratio? Is this number “padded” with non-staff such as volunteers or admin staff?

Mistake #6: Not asking about programming.
Does the camp have a full program plan, or just a calendar with one “hot item” each day? How are the hours actually filled in?
– Is there a specific daily & weekly schedule? Is there accountability for how this schedule is followed?
– Is the program adjusted for different ages?

– How much variety is offered in the activities?
– Will my child have any choice in the activities they participate in?
– What are the qualifications of the staff who are in charge of programming?

Mistake #7: Not asking how children will be grouped together.
As a parent you know how quickly a child changes as they grow. A four year old and a nine year old have very different interests, abilities, and social skills, and their programming should reflect these differences. Camps who understand child development will group campers into age-appropriate groupings so that their programming will best fit their needs.
– How large is the range of ages that will be included in one group?
– How many groups are there?
– What is the maximum number of children in each group?
– How many staff are working directly with each group?

Mistake #8: Not considering the culture fit.
A lot of camps will advertise that their campers will “develop confidence”, “make friends”, and “have fun” in a “safe environment”. How many times have you read these words? The trick is how the camp plans to actually accomplish these goals. It doesn’t just happen by accident. The culture that a camp cultivates is a reflection of their goals and values and is what will separate a magical experience from a merely adequate one.
– What are your camp’s traditions?
– How do you help new campers make friends?
– Can you give me some examples of how a camper’s confidence will improve?
– What do you do to ensure a camper’s emotional safety?

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