- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 6, 2001

The American Camping Association recommends these tips for parents before sending children off to camp for the first time.

• Consider camp a learning experience an opportunity for a child to explore a different world and a chance to practice "letting go."

• Prepare for camp together. Make joint decisions about where to go and what to pack.

• Visit camp in advance so the child will be familiar with the surroundings.

• Discuss what camp will be like and acknowledge the child's feelings.

• Do not tell children they will be "rescued" if they don't like camp.

• Send a letter before camp begins so the child will have it upon their arrival.

• Pack a favorite stuffed animal or photo as a reminder of home.

Bonnie Dunn, president of the Chesapeake Section of the American Camping Association, adds these suggestions.

"One of the big things is don't tell your kids you are going to miss them that is like laying a guilt trip on them. Suggest to the child they will be having fun and meeting new friends."

She also recommends not telling children that you are going on vacation while they are away.

"It's OK to let them know you might be going somewhere, but they can get in touch with you," she says.

What if, despite all efforts, a child gets homesick?

• Speak candidly with the camp directors for their perception of the child's adjustment.

• Acknowledge a child's feelings and communicate your love.

• Support efforts to work out problems with the help of the camp staff.

• Remind children, if necessary, that they made a commitment.

• Trust your instincts: The occasional child who is having a miserable time and not adjusting to camp life should be allowed to return home after a reasonable amount of time and effort.

Many of these problems can be avoided by matching the child's interests with the camp, Ms. Dunn says.

"If you have a child that is not athletic, don't send them to a sports camp. If your child is shy, pick a small camp," she says.

And, she adds, make sure the child feels comfortable with the camp. Attend an orientation session, and restrict overnight camps to children who are at least 8 years old.

What should parents look for when choosing a camp?

By asking the right questions, parents can help ensure the camping experience will be positive.

• What is the educational and career background of the camp director?

A bachelor's degree, in-service training within the past three years and at least 16 weeks of camp administrative experience are prerequisites.

• What is the camper return rate?

A large number of returning campers usually indicates a high level of satisfaction with the camp.

• How old are the counselors? What percentage are return counselors? What qualities, certification and experience does the director look for in staff?

Among the program staff, 80 percent or more should be 18 or older. Any counselors younger than 18 must be at least two years older than the campers they are supervising. Most camps have between 40 and 60 percent of staff return. If the rate is lower, find out why.

• What is the ratio of counselors to campers?

The ratio should be based on the ages of the campers and their needs. Resident campers require one staff member for every six campers ages 6 to 8; one staffer for every eight campers ages 9 to 14; and one staffer for every 10 campers ages 15 to 18. For day campers, each group increases by two.

• What is the camp's program philosophy?

Some camps promote competition and rivalry among camp teams, while others encourage cooperative learning. Only a parent will know which style fits their child.

• What are the safety and medical accommodations?

• What is the transportation system?

Find out what type of vehicles are used and how often they are inspected by qualified mechanics.

• Ask the director to describe the camp's driver training and ongoing safety awareness programs.

• Ask if it will be possible to visit the camp before enrolling your child.

• Ask for names of camper families to contact for their impressions of the camp.

• Is the camp accredited by the American Camping Association?

Accreditation verifies that a camp has complied with up to 300 standards for health, safety and program quality, which are recognized by courts of law and government regulators. At least once every three years, an outside team of trained camp professionals observe the camp in session to verify compliance. If a camp is not ACA-accredited, find out why.

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