A Parent’s Guide to Summer Camp: Counselors Offer Top Tips, Tricks and Questions to Ask
Whether you’re looking for a daytime program to keep kids active or an overnight option for an older child, camp organizers share some advice to ensure a successful experience.
Ah, summer. When a youngster’s thoughts turn to sunny days hiking through the woods. Or maybe painting a picture of a stream. Or transforming a Raspberry Pi computer into a camera.
Summer camps can be all those things and more.
Camping has undergone some big changes over the years, but it still boils down to one thing: Kids just want to have fun. It’s up to parents (or grandparents) to figure out what that looks like for their family and make it happen.
Whether you need a full-time care option or a short program—or three—to keep your child busy, Central Ohio boasts a wealth of interesting summer choices. Numerous day and residential camps with themes to suit just about any kind of camper can be found within a short drive.
Depending on which option you choose, you’ll want to move quickly. The most popular camps sell out shortly after the booking window opens.
If you’re worried about finding the right spot for your child this summer, don’t be. We’ve collected some timeless tips and advice from camp organizers and a pediatrician to make the process easier.
Exploring the Options
There’s a wide variety of programs to choose from, such as traditional outdoors-based camps; camps for aspiring musicians, artists, actors and writers; STEM camps for inquiring minds; sports camps for budding athletes; faith-based camps to nurture the spirit; and camps for children with special needs.
For younger kids, day camps are a good place to start. Many general-interest programs are run by city parks and recreation departments, churches, schools and nonprofit organizations.
Some children enjoy camps focused on a single topic, like Sunbury Urban Farm, which connects kids to the environment and the foods they eat; the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, where participants can visit their favorite animals and learn how they fit into the ecosystem; or the PAST Foundation’s lineup of STEM-based programs in robotics, biotechnology and coding.
When your child is ready for something more involved, overnight or “sleepaway” camps come into the picture. Area resident camps range from summer institute programs at the Ohio Supercomputer Center, where middle school girls and high school students can discover careers in science; to Ohio State University’s Youth Summer Music Programs, which offer a clinic with the OSU marching band; or the more traditional Camp Wyandot, where campers learn about conservation and nature in a rustic setting. Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the YMCA and other organizations also offer overnight options.
Planning is Key
Research by the American Camp Association finds that parents make camp purchases at least two months before a program begins. And that’s after spending a month or more researching and deciding which camp their children should attend.
In reality, families should start the search as soon as possible. Popular programs fill up quickly.
Registration for the zoo’s programs—which host 2,500 campers each summer—opened to past participants in November and everyone else in December, allowing parents to give the gift of camp for Christmas, says Brandon Good, manager of curriculum development and implementation. Many of those spots were already booked by January.
Sarah Erickson, program director of Sunbury Urban Farm, says most of their camps filled up Jan. 3 when registration opened. “Our waitlist helps us gauge where we need to grow and add extra spots,” she says. “We want to have as many kids as possible.”
If you get closed out of your top choice, find out when registration typically opens and mark your calendar for next year.
Matching Kids to Camps
You might know when your child took their first step or lost their first tooth, but how well do you know their interests? Would they be happier running around outside all day, or would they prefer painting or learning to dance?
You might want to have a conversation or two—with your kids and prospective camp administrators—before you commit, to make sure everyone is on the same page. “Don’t be afraid to ask your kiddo what they’re interested in, but also don’t be afraid to push them out of their comfort zone a little bit,” says Ashley Price, director of student experiences with the PAST Foundation. “They don’t know what they don’t know until they get an opportunity to try it out.
“We get a lot of parents that call and say, ‘Hey, this is who my kiddo is. Do you think that program would be a good fit?’” says Price. “Don’t be afraid to ask those questions. We want kiddos to come and learn new things, but we want them to be comfortable, as well.”
“There are so many different types of camps out there that, chances are, there’s a camp that your child is ready for,” says Erickson.
Is your child ready to take the plunge?
“If you have a kid who goes off to day care or preschool or school and is fine being away from Mom and Dad and comes back excited to share their experiences of the day, they’re probably ready,” says Dr. Michael Patrick, a pediatrician and emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and host of the popular PediaCast podcast. “If they’re more clingy and cry and talk about how much they missed you, it’s going to be more of a challenge.”
Camp Wyandot has a Mini Trails program for younger campers that offers a shorter residential stay. “If they want to try out everything, they can come for a three-day session,” says camp director Connie Coutellier, who attended Camp Wyandot herself when she was 7.
Readiness is a two-way street, says the zoo’s Good. “The most important thing for a parent to ask themselves is if they’re ready. Have you prepared yourself for your child to come to camp?” he says. “If you feel confident in sending your child to camp, then you can express that confidence to your camper, and they’ll mirror that confidence when they come to camp.”
It’s also not a bad idea to let camp organizers know if your child is a first-time camper.
“I’d prefer to have staff members go, ‘OK. We need to make sure we’re a little more engaging, so people are having a good time and they’re so engaged they’re not realizing, ‘Oh, I miss my mom,’” says David Hedgecoth, director of OSU’s Youth Summer Music Program.
Finding a camp that interests your child is only half the battle. Understanding what to expect from a camp is essential—especially if your camper has special needs or chronic conditions such as food allergies or asthma.
The American Camp Association suggests asking about such things as the camp director’s background, what training counselors receive, the counselor-to-camper ratio and how homesickness is handled. Safety should be top of mind for camp staff and administrators. “We have an RN on duty, a risk management plan and extensive training for the staff every year,” Coutellier says.
Alan Chalker, an alumnus of the Ohio Supercomputer Center’s summer residency camps where he’s now director of strategic programs, agrees. “As a parent, I’ve had my kids involved in a variety of programs,” he says. “We’re going to have care and custody of these kids for an extended period of time. As a parent, you want to make sure that whoever’s running the program takes that seriously.”
ACA accreditation also can help parents choose the right camp, says Erickson. “You know right away that these camps have participated in a thorough review of operations,” she says. “It really shows a camp’s ongoing commitment to health and safety and fun. And that’s what we want; those are the big things.”
Safety is also a watchword for Hedgecoth, whose program brings 500 to 600 students to OSU and relies on more than 100 student workers and staff. “The youth protection element really is a foundational stone to make sure we’re running a responsible endeavor,” he says. “Being very thoughtful about who’s going to interact with these children and teach them and walk them to the cafeteria and around campus is key.”
Water safety is also important.
“I think the swimming pool is the biggest thing to ask about,” says Patrick, stressing the importance of adequate supervision, training of lifeguards and swim tests for campers. “Whenever water is involved, you want to make sure the camp is intentional about how they handle the pool and it’s not just a free-for-all.”
Cost concerns are a major consideration for many families when choosing a program. The good news is, there are options to fit almost any budget, from programs that are free for eligible students to two-month resident camps topping $10,000. The ACA suggests checking with local organizations, places of worship or parks and recreation departments to see if they offer financial aid or scholarships, since 93 percent of ACA-accredited programs offer some type of assistance.
“It’s probably not good to look for a bargain when you’re thinking about sending your kids off to be supervised by someone else,” says Patrick, who suggests prioritizing camps with better resources.
Tips for Summer Camp Success
There are lots of ways to make—and break—the camping experience for your child. Here are a few:
- Don’t offer an out. “One of the more common mistakes if a child is hesitant to come to camp is if you tell them, ‘If you don’t like it, I will come and pick you up,’” says Good. “Keep those conversations positive; keep them directed toward their interests and what’s going to be fun about camp rather than the opportunity to leave.”
- Don’t overschedule. “Expect your kids to be exhausted at the end of the day. Be prepared for your kids to be sweaty and hungry and tired,” says Erickson. “That means they’ve had a good day.”
- Engage with kids when they come home. Ask what they’ve learned and what they’re struggling with to gauge their level of enjoyment, Price says.
- Label their belongings. Put your kid’s name on everything to improve the odds their items make it back home. “It’s like the child explodes like a Tasmanian devil, and it’s so much easier to get things back to the child when camp is over,” Erickson says.
- Follow the packing list. “Make sure you’ve read the packing list and pack what the camp has requested,” says Erickson. “If it’s on the packing list, there’s a reason.”
- Embrace the unknown. Discovering new things is the whole point of summer camp, Chalker says. “Maybe you’ll find something that you’re passionate about.”
Not sure where to start? Talk to other parents, especially those with older children. Internet searches will produce a laundry list of camp names, but references from friends can help narrow the field.
The American Camp Association (acacamps.org) maintains a searchable database of more than 3,900 camps offering 13,000 programs. You can search by type of camp, age of the camper or location.
Cap4Kids (cap4kids.org/columbus)—run by the local chapter of the Children’s Advocacy Project with input from Nationwide Children’s Hospital—also offers curated camp listings, along with a wide variety of resources for parents.
This story is from the Columbus Parent section in the March 2023 issue of Columbus Monthly.