Summer Camp – America’s Safe Havens

by Jeffrey Solomon

In these uncertain times for our city and our nation, familieseverywhere are taking stock of their priorities and plans. In thisnew world – post September 11- certain activities and concernsthat previously seemed so important are now taking a backseat totime spent with family and the mental health and well being of allof our children.

One constant that families can still rely on in troubled timesis the American institution of summer camp. Since the early 1900’ssummer camp has provided a safe, fun, learning experience foryoungsters of all ages. Interestingly, doctors and mental healthprofessionals have long advocated overnight camp for children whohave suffered traumatic loss, such as the death of a parent or adivorce. Though a parent’s first instinct in this type ofsituation might be to keep a child close to home for the summer,the professionals feel that these children need a break from theirhome life for a time, in a structured environment where they arefree to simply be children and experience fun. Often thesechildren are dealing with feelings of guilt or overwhelmingresponsibility at home. In some instances they may also be dealingwith certain stigma, surrounding the circumstances of their loss,at school or in the neighborhood. The camp experience ca! n bevery freeing for these children and can instill in them aself-confidence that helps them cope with circumstances upon theirreturn home.

This recommendation can now be broadened and expanded today toinclude not only children directly affected by the events of Sept.11 but those indirectly affected as well. The stress and sadnessthat adults have felt in response to recent events is alsoexperienced by children, albeit as part of their own unique worldview. We all could use a reprieve from the television, thecomputers and city life – camp gives children a chance to connectwith other children and nature through fun and learning, in acaring and safe community. This helps to restore sense of normalcyto their lives.

Realizing that sleepaway camps are located out of the city invery rural areas, many families are considering sleepaway campsfor their children. Concerns over air travel has families seekingcamps within a bus or a car ride of home, typically within a fewhours drive.

Alternatively, for those whose ideal program is further away,parents are choosing to vacation in the same state as the camp orto accompany their children on the plane trips to the program.Camps are quite accustomed to coordinating travel arrangementswith families who cannot travel with the children, due to theincreased number of children from overseas who have been attendingcamp in the US over the past few years. This summer they can beexpected to offer even more expanded services in this regard.

Overseas programs for older children are usually a popularoption but this year more families are taking advantage of thetravel, enrichment and community service programs located in theUS and Canada.

Summer camp began in the northeastern United States and whilethere are excellent programs to choose from throughout thecountry, the Northeast remains the mecca for the traditionalgeneral camps as well as specialty programs of all kinds – arts,sports, riding, etc. This is good news for New Yorkers trying tofind the best options for their children. The only bad news isthat many families will want to get into these programs close tohome and may find that they close out especially early this year.By early spring, many camps will be filled.

For parents who never went to summer camp themselves or havenever considered in for their children, the advantages of camp maynot be immediately clear. Camp offers children a chance to try newactivities, gain proficiencies and skills beyond what school canoffer, build lifelong friendships and develop a sense ofindependence. This all takes place in peaceful, rustic settingsfar from city life.

Regardless of the age of your child, it is important that theultimate selection of a camp accommodate all or some of the needs,interests, goals, and expectations of both parent and child. Theparent must make an effort to understand what the child wants andwhy. A good way to begin is to sit down as a family and respond tothe following questions:

  • What do you and your child want to gain from the campexperience ? Learn new skills, develop more self confidence,improving proficiency in certain areas, become moreindependent?
  • What are other expectations of the camp experience?
  • What are the special interests that your child wants toexplore?
  • Are there any physical, intellectual, or social limitationsthat should be considered?
  • What kind of emphasis will your child profit from the most?For example: Is a lot of structure desirable, is socialinteraction with members of the opposite sex important, ordoes your child need a place where he or she is encouraged todevelop at their own pace?

With the above information in mind, it is appropriate to lookat some of the specific characteristics that should be consideredin determining what you and your child want. These characteristicsinclude type of camp, cost, size, and location as well as programactivities and offerings.

As you might imagine, camps have all kinds of programofferings. Some camps may emphasize one activity while others willoffer a wide array of programs. Camps in which a camper woulddevote a majority of his or her time to one activity are oftenreferred to as Specialty Camps. In these camps, staff andfacilities are geared to provide an intensive experience in asingle area such as tennis, horseback riding, gymnastics, sailingor wilderness. Naturally, these camps have other facilities andactivities that provide campers with additional experiences. Amore traditional camp program tends to be broader in terms of whatit offers.

Most general camps will provide programs in some team sportssuch as baseball and soccer, individual sports like tennis, andwaterfront activities such as swimming and sailing, as well assome outdoor life options in hiking and canoeing. Many of thesecamps also provide campers with the opportunity to get extrainstruction in any of the areas that are offered. In making adecision about camp, it is vital that you and your child look intothe total camp program and that you examine the quality of thestaff and facilities available to support that program. Questionsto consider include:

  • Will the program encourage the child to try new things orthings he or she is not skilled in?
  • What is the philosophy regarding competition and the levelof competitiveness?
  • Which activities are required?
  • Is instruction given in each activity?
  • How structured is the program? Are there electives (choicesthe child can make)?
  • Is your child willing to make a commitment to spending amajor portion of the day in one activity or sport?

Consider these questions as you compare the different programsthat you learn about. It is also helpful to try to pin down someof the program preferences you and your child have. Common campactivities include:

Team Sports

Baseball, Basketball, Field Hockey, Football, Lacrosse, Soccer,Softball, Volleyball, Roller Hockey, Ice Hockey.

Individual Sports

Archery, Fencing, Fishing, Golf, Gymnastics, Martial Arts,Wrestling, Track&Field, Biking, Minibikes, Go-karts, WeightTraining, Riding, Riflery, Tennis, Figure Skating, Aerobics.


Canoeing, Kayaking, Diving, Sailing, Scuba, Snorkeling, Swimming,Waterskiing, Jet-skiing, Windsurfing


Rope Courses, Backpacking, Camp Crafts, Rafting, Rock Climbing,Outdoor Cooking, Overnights, Hiking

Creative Arts

Basketry, Drawing, Jewelry, Leatherwork, Metalwork, Crafts,Painting, Cooking, Writing, Photography, Sculpture, Weaving,Stained Glass, Woodwork, Film/Video, Sewing, Journalism, Ceramics

Performing Arts

Acting, Directing, Magic, Puppetry, Script Writing, Costuming,Lighting, Makeup, Set Construction, Broadcasting, Ballet, RockMusic, Jazz, Choreography, Folk Dance, Modern Dance, Instrumental,Voice, Circus Arts


Geology, Gardening, Biology, Marine Biology, Farming, Nature,Astronomy, Rocketry, Ecology, Computing, Archaeology, Physics,Radio, Aviation


Foreign Language, Remedial Tutoring, Academic Enrichment, Englishas a Second Language (ESL), SAT Prep


Teen Tours, Community Service, Biking, Wilderness

If there are special needs to be taken into consideration thesecan be accommodated as well. Examples of special needs achild might have are:

Weight Loss, Kosher, Vegetarian or other Special Diet, LearningDisability, Attention Deficit Disorder, Non-English Speaking,Physically Disability

After having thought about it and focused in on what yourwishes and wants would be you will want to find programs thatwould provide those to your child. There are many ways to find outabout different camp options available. Word-of-mouth is probablythe most popular way. The important thing to keep in mind there isthat what is right for one family and one child may not be rightfor another. Camp fairs are good sources of information as well,although the selection can be limited, since not all camps need orchoose to attend these. Another popular way to get information isto use an independent referral service which researches and visitscamps and makes customized referrals for families based on theirindividual needs

The best way to proceed with your comparison and to narrow yourchoices is to take a careful look at some of the promising campsyou have identified. Review the brochures and videos with yourchild. Then you can choose the ones you’re most interested in andarrange to speak or meet with the camp directors orrepresentatives. Whether a child is an experienced camper or afirst timer parents should do their best to learn as much aspossible about any new program they are considering. Here are thetypes of questions one might think about asking the director ofany program being considered for this upcoming summer:

  • What is the director’s age and background? How long has thedirector run this camp?
  • What are the camp’s goals and philosophy?
  • What kind of camper is most likely to have a good experienceat this camp?
  • What facilities does the camp have and how convenient arethey for campers and parents to get to?
  • What is the communications policy of the camp while insession? Are phone calls permitted? E-mails to and from home?
  • What is the schedule like? Is it a structured program or onethat emphasizes a lot of free choice?
  • What is the camper-counselor ratio and what are thecharacteristics of most of the staff?
  • What kind of staff training is provided?
  • What percentage of campers return each year?
  • What is the total cost of the camp including extras?
  • What are the sleeping arrangements and what toilet andshower facilities exist?
  • What is the swimming instruction program like?
  • How does the camp insure the safety and security of itscampers?
  • What is the food like and who prepares it?
  • What is the policy about food packages, letters home, TV,trips to town, and to forth?
  • What medical facilities are available and what medical staffis on campus?
  • Is there a refund policy if the camper leaves early?
  • Will the director supply references?
  • What happens when the weather is bad?
  • How does the camp program meet individual needs anddifferences?
  • What kind of insurance coverage is there?

A parent should never feel self conscious about asking a lot ofquestions. A good camp will have paid a lot of attention to theseparental concerns and should be eager to respond to them.

Be careful not to focus on one area and therefore omit others.For example: a camp’s facilities might be very impressive but theywon’t mean a great deal if the atmosphere is not friendly, or ifthe staff and program are inadequate.

Involve your child in the selection process. Review yourchild’s preferences and let your child ask questions too. Thiswill make them more comfortable with the idea of going away if itis their first time.

Additionally, ask for references of families who have had theirchild attend the camp. Speaking with these families can give youvaluable insight about the camp and the families that send theirchildren there.

After going through this process your family should becomfortable with the program you have chosen and your child canlook forward to their camp stay throughout the next few months.

In an ever-changing world it can be hard to find those stalwartpeople, places and things that one can count on. History has shownthat in wartime as well as peace time, recessions as well as boomyears, and in every kind of time, kids will be kids and,fortunately, camp will be camp. Summer camp remains America’s safehaven.

Jeffrey Solomon is Executive Director of National CampAssociation, an organization that has been helping families findovernight programs throughout the US and worldwide for nearly 20years.


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