JB Note: My friend Sara Kuljis is the Executive Director of Yosemite Sierra Summer Camp. Along with her husband Steve, Sara has been at helm of YSSC since 1998. She has served on the board of the American Camp Association, Southern California/Hawaii Section, and is a frequent speaker and trainer for the Association. In the following article, Sara shares some insights on how parents can choose the right summer camp experience for their kids.
Why parents should invest in a summer camp for their kids:
Summer camp is an ideal environment in which children can learn and grow. Quality camp programs, where children and youth are surrounded by caring, capable staff and have new adventures and engaging experiences, can truly supplement and reinforce the good parenting that is happening at home. Kids learn differently away from the protections and familiarity of home. So whether at day camp or sleep away camp, children are shaped by a new setting and discover wholesome role models, strengths and skills they did not know they had. Invaluable life skills such as healthy independence, problem solving, empathy, resilience and courage are readily uncovered at summer camp. Friend-making and friend-keeping skills equip youth with confidence. Shedding the pressure of regular life, letting go of technology, diving into nature and exercising imagination give children a renewed sense of freedom. Rituals and traditions are plentiful at camp and offer children these elements of life that they long for. Finally, discovering God’s love and voice in a new way, and ushering in a personal awakening of faith that is not inherited from parents or youth workers, is often the result of a summer camp experience.
Research on the impact of quality camp experiences is clear: Camp does kids a world of good! You can check out lots more about the American Camp Association research funded by the Lilly Foundation at http://www.acacamps.org/research.
How parents can best approach determining what type of camp would be the best fit for their kids:
When considering summer camp program, I encourage parents to think of their child’s “wholeness.” To help your child be a well-rounded individual, if his year was especially academically consuming, perhaps summer camp can bolster his physical health and personal confidence with an active sports or outdoor program. If your child has specialized in a sport all year, perhaps it’s time to allow her to dabble in a new activity for the fun and adventure of it — maybe it’s time for horseback riding rather than more club soccer. If a child is demonstrating a readiness for more independence, then a well-run and well-staffed sleep away camp may just the ticket! If kids have spent much of the year in organized sports and rigorous academics, exercising their imagination with creativity and nature may be most needed. If developing more personal spirituality or becoming better connected with a local youth group is what can provide more wholeness for a child, then a faith-based camp could be explored. For families considering several camps over the course of the summer, seek a good balance and variety of programs without over scheduling your child.
Many camps focus on honing specific talents, sports or skills like dance, computer or lacrosse. When considering the whole child, however, I recommend that parents consider valuable “life skills” development that camp can bring about. These skills are transferable to all areas of life and are essential to future success. Research on the impact of quality camp experiences on youth indicates growth in essential skills like decision making, communication, collaboration, problem solving, empathy and resiliency. Why not give your child the gift of developing these through the fun and play? As an example, both Emerald Cove Day Camp and Yosemite Sierra Summer Camp are built on four mantras: growing character, skills, relationships and faith. With staffing and programming designed to help campers’ development in these ways, we are committed to helping campers leave camp more equipped to succeed in the year ahead. With all the play, adventure, community life and mentoring incorporated into each day, children often don’t’ even realize they are learning because they are enjoying themselves so much.
Questions parents should ask when checking out a particular camp, both of the program and the counselors/instructors:
Parents often focus only on questions of physical safety (like background checks for staff) or what activities are offered (climbing walls, horseback riding, fieldtrips). While these questions are important, there are many others that will help a family determine the quality of a program and if the program is a good fit for their children. Some of my favorite questions are:
• What is the mission statement of the camp and how does the program go about fulfilling its mission?
• What defines your program and makes it productive and special?
• How do you choose your staff?
• What kind of training does your staff receive before campers arrive?
• Explain the supervision of campers provided by your staff?
• How do you handle inappropriate camper behavior?
• What kind of faith development activities are woven into the program?
• What leadership opportunities are woven into the program?
• What kind of communication can I expect from camp while my child is there?
• Can I speak to any families who have attended your camp in previously summers?
How to involve your child in the camp selection process:
I think a child should always feel a part of the decision to go to summer camp, although a young child will, of course, have less input than a teen. I would encourage parents to let their young children, under 8 years of age or so, to view the camp website or marketing video and even speak to a friend who has previously attended the program in order to get their buy in and begin building enthusiasm and anticipation for the program. Children 8 years and older often have opinions about what they want to be involved in and what they want to learn. Parents might consider choosing two or three programs that are a good fit for their children and letting the kids make the final decision on which one they will attend. For teens, I think it’s beneficial to allow them to discover and research programs that interest them, and fit the family summer schedule and price level. After presenting their top choices to parents, the family can then make their choice together.