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Know Before They Go 

What questions should you ask before sending a kid to camp?

Published May 1, 2012 at 4:00 a.m.

Fast-forwarding to summer, your camper-to-be probably has a million questions: Will I make friends? Will there be spiders? What's it like to sleep in a tent? Will we have pancakes on Saturday morning? How do you go to the bathroom in the woods?

As a parent, you probably have a few queries of your own, such as: Will my child be happy and safe when he or she is out of my sight?

You're right to ask. Kids go off to camp to push their personal and physical boundaries, but how much pushing is too much? Is there a way to vet camp counselors before entrusting your child to them?

One of your first questions should be whether or not the place is accredited by the American Camp Association. It's not mandatory, but tests the ACA applies during the evaluation process have established a safety standard across the industry.

Unlike required state licensing, which focuses mainly on health standards, cleanliness and sanitation, the ACA evaluates emergency protocols, staff qualifications and medical care, collaborating with experts from organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Red Cross.

It also looks at the suitability and safety of specific programming, the ratio of staff to campers and opportunities for camper growth. In short, an ACA evaluation goes beyond spot-checking the kitchens to really dig into the nitty-gritty of what your child will be doing each day.

"Safety is a shared responsibility; camps and families need to partner together to ensure that children and youth have the best possible camp experience," says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association. "ACA-accreditation is a family's best evidence of a camp's commitment to the health and safety of campers, so if the camp is not accredited, ask why."

There could be a perfectly logical reason. Adventure camps, such as Jericho-based Northland Adventure Education & Therapy Center, often don't seek ACA accreditation because they report to — and follow guidelines established by — other outdoor-industry organizations.

"As an adventure-education camp, we're closely regulated by the American Mountain Guides Association, the American Canoe Association, Outward Bound and National Outdoor Leadership School," says Ed Spaulding, executive director at Northland Adventure. "We have rigorous standards for our instructors, which include requiring five or more years of experience, a bachelor's degree related to the field and a current certificate in wilderness first aid or wilderness first responder — and, of course, alifeguarding certification for our water sports."

Other programs, such as Colchester's Enniskerry Farm horseback-riding day camp, require fewer official certifications, so it's your responsibility to seek out information. If the camp director is unwilling to meet with you or answer questions over the phone, that should raise a red flag.

"Families should ask for references, and check them out — and don't be afraid to ask tough questions," Smith says.

Enniskerry Farm owner Patty Hart-Ahonen, an experienced horsewoman of 30-plus years, is happy to answer queries from parents or kids, and recommends that families visit the farm before camp starts.

"I like it when the kids come to visit first; I'm much more comfortable with that, and the kids are much more comfortable when they arrive," Hart-Ahonen says. "It also helps the parents to be able to do a walk-through and see that the facilities are suitable and the horses are calm and friendly."

Hart-Ahonen provides industry-approved helmets, ensures small class sizes and maintains a healthy staff-to-camper ratio.

Crunching numbers — like the staff-to-camper ratio and the average age of the staff — is an important part of evaluating a camp's safety. The amount of time a staff spends in training before campers arrive is also crucial to ensuring familiarity with equipment, trails and potential dangers.

In part because it incorporates multi-week expeditions, Plymouth-based Farm & Wilderness camps have a long pre-camp training time for counselors — they spend 19 days honing on-the-trail emergency procedures, food safety and farm-management skills.

"There are so many different ways to think of risk and safety when you're in loco parentis," says F&W Executive Director Pieter Bohen. "There are the more obvious things, like storms, drowning, broken limbs, but there's also a much more subtle social dynamic that needs to be addressed, like bullying or a child becoming isolated."

At the eight Farm & Wilderness camps, there's a broad-ranging policy on acceptance and inclusiveness that applies to both staff members and campers. Bohen calls this "the freedom to present yourself however you wish." If that means wearing a bear suit all summer, or a purple cape plucked from the overflowing costume chest, that's okay.

Statistics show the most dangerous part of camp, and the most likely source of injury, is the car trip back and forth. So if you've done your camp research in advance, and manage to get there without incident, it's a safe bet that you can relax knowing your child is in good hands.

Quizzing Camps

  • Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association? Why? Why not?
  • What is the camp's philosophy and program emphasis?
  • What is the camp director's background?
  • What training do counselors receive?
  • What is the staff-to-camper ratio?
  • What are the ages of the counselors?
  • What are desired qualities in camp staff?
  • What percentage of the counselors returned from last year?
  • How are behavioral and disciplinary problems handled?
  • How does the camp handle special needs?
  • How does the camp handle homesickness and other adjustment issues?
  • Does the camp have references?

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.

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