Choosing The Right Summer CampPosted by on March 13, 2019

Written by Fernwood Cove Parent Frances Phillips.

At its heart, every summer camp is a unique community. Choosing an overnight camp means choosing to be a part of a new community.  This is a big decision, but choosing the right summer camp does not have to be stressful. Knowing exactly which summer camp will be the “perfect fit” for you and your family is less important than being open to new possibilities for fun, friendship, and personal growth. The decision should be a joint one between parents and their child(ren). The central focus should be the interests, maturity level and needs of the camper. However, also take into account parents’ (and other siblings’) points of view and goals.  And of course, family plans play an important role as well.

A quality summer camp experience provides a positive, lasting impact on a camper’s life. At Fernwood Cove, Maine’s first half-season overnight camp for girls, campers learn how to be independent while living with others harmoniously. Fernwood Cove’s overnight camp program also provides campers the opportunity to understand the meaning and importance of self-awareness, friendship, cooperation and trust. Fernwood Cove girls take these lessons with them wherever they go in life. Because of this, making the right choice can feel exciting and a bit overwhelming. For campers and their parents. Finding the best combination of excitement, personal growth, and skill development is key.

Having a truly extraordinary experience is the ultimate goal.

To break it down, the characteristics of parents and campers usually look at most closely are camp philosophy, activities, location.  Additional things to consider include camp diversity, duration and unique opportunities the camp provides. Questions to consider include:

What is the summer camp’s philosophy?

A summer camp is composed of a vast array of identifiable, quantifiable elements. Things like the number of activities and even types of foods offered, but what gives a camp its unique character is often more nuanced. Things like how a summer camp sees its role in the growth of a camper and what kind of person it aspires to nurture and develop are highly influential. These make up the summer camp’s ethos: its character as a community.

First and foremost, parents need to be sure that the ethos of a specific overnight camp aligns with their personal ethos and values.  On the surface, many summer camps are quite similar.  However, the smallest things can set one apart from another.  And it’s often these small details that determine whether a camp is a right fit for your family.

Choosing the Right Summer Camp: Philosophy

  • Traditional camp versus a specialized program. While optimal happiness is every camper’s goal, it’s helpful to look more closely at what that actually means. Does a camper want to do more of a particular thing that they may not have the time or opportunity to do at home, say, horseback riding, metalsmithing or culinary arts? Or do they want to try as many different things as possible? Make sure that the camp is set up in a way that will enable maximum success for maximum enjoyment!
  • Single-gender versus co-ed. There is plenty written on the benefits of all girls’ or all boys’ settings and how they stack up against mixed gender environments. But most of the research is about schools and education. Again, it will depend on the needs and interests of each specific camper, and there are no rules. Campers who attend single-gender schools during the year often want to “mix it up” over the summer, and vice versa. A girl may feel strongly about forming bonds in an all-girl setting as often as possible, while the choice is still hers and knowing that the “real world” is different.
  • Uniform versus no uniform. Some campers love expressing themselves through fashion, while others find the simplicity of a uniform liberating. Maybe it’s not a big deal either way. Campers should be able to find a way to let go of the “costume” of their everyday life and feel comfortable regardless of the camp’s tradition. Most camps will also have special dress-up events that campers will have fun planning creative outfits around.
  • Full season versus half season.This is a very personal decision and one that only a camper and their family members can decide. A useful way of figuring out which is right is by taking a long hard look at actual dates. Make sure to consider siblings who may be on different school schedules—and at your own calendar. Only one thing is certain and that is that summers fly by! Making sure there is a balance of family and “me” time for a camper will make every day as a fun, relaxed and special as possible.

What about the activities?

When discussing overnight camp future campers often ask “What about the activities?” Summer camp activities can span a range of areas, including fine arts, performing arts, sports, adventure and outdoors, water sports, and even academics. There are so many opportunities to explore new and different things as well as refine and develop new skills. Due to this it can be more helpful to understand what a summer camp’s general approach is to provide the most enriching experience possible.

Equally important is the structure of the activity schedule, focus on skill development, and whether there are required activities.  Instructional activities make up the majority of a camper’s day. It is important that both parents and campers know what to expect once camp begins.  There are a lot of details when it comes to scheduling activities for campers.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions about how activities are scheduled, what skills parents can expect their camper to learn and if there’s any specialized equipment required to participate in any activities.

Choosing the Right Summer Camp: Activities

  • Independent versus group scheduling. How much input does a camper have in how they spend their time at summer camp? How many of their activities are chosen for them versus by them? And are campers encouraged to go out of their comfort zone while at summer camp, exploring types of activities at levels of expertise or intensity that they may not have, previously?
  • Instructional activities versus bunk activities. Are there activities that the bunk decides on together? How much of a camper’s day is up to them and how much is based on decisions made by the bunk as a group? Making collective plans about special activities or outings is just the beginning of what can be some of a camper’s most memorable experiences.
  • Activity requirements and skill progression. Are there activities that are required, like Swimming or Outdoor Living Skills?  Or are there activities that are a “must” for your camper to participate in?  If so, can the camp accommodate these needs?  Are all activities open to all campers?  Or are there restrictions based on age or skill level?  Is there an opportunity for a camper to have continued skill development or experience new activities as she returns each summer? It’s highly important to fully understand the structure of the program so that everyone knows what to expect.  This is important in the camper’s first summer and as she continues to return to camp in future summers.
  • Sports-oriented versus less competitive. Organized sports have clear benefits but they can also ramp up the pressure. Even campers who participate extensively in competitive sports during the school year may be interested in taking time off during summer camp. Conversely, summer camp can be a great place for a child who hasn’t focused on athletics to try something new. Competition of various intensities can be enormously rewarding, just like taking the time to master a skill can be. Summer camps may offer multiple routes to staying healthy—in body and mind—while honoring the unique personality of every camper.

Most summer camps include the schedule of a typical day on their website.  This gives details about how the day is planned—be sure to check these out.  And remember to ask about what to expect for your camper in future summers, not just this one.

Where is the summer camp located?

When choosing an overnight camp, many families take into account how far away from home a summer camp is. But distance isn’t nearly as important as what the particular location of the camp has to offer.  What things are unique and special and how do these things fit into your camper’s interests? Once a camper has travelled to a sleep-away summer camp, whether that journey takes a few minutes or the better part of a day or even longer for international campers, they should feel as though they are in a special place.

One-way emails and old-fashioned letters do a wonderful job of bridging any distance a camper and her family may feel. And they preserve the magic of her experience away from home. A summer camp’s immediate surroundings should also allow campers to take advantage of local highlights. The local surroundings influence out of camp trips that may be part of a summer camp’s regular activities. The local surroundings determine whether the summer camp is able to offer a unique and treasured experience.

Choosing the Right Summer Camp: Location

  • Close to home versus farther away. There is no perfect distance from home when it comes to summer camp.  Overnight camp means being away from home for the duration of camp.  For some families, there’s security in being close by.  However, for others, there’s a focus on experiencing a new region of the country.  Or possibly there’s a family connection to a specific state.  Families have to make decisions based on what is best for them.  And keep in mind factors like additional travel expenses and the ability to participate in Parents Visiting Day (if there is one) when considering the ideal location for your child’s summer camp.
  • From the city to the wilderness. The foundation of summer camp was focused on getting kids out of the hustle and bustle of the city and reconnecting with nature.  Today’s summer camp opportunities take campers into wilderness locations, rural America, and into the heart of the biggest cities.  Being outdoors and reconnecting with nature does not require being in the wilderness.  Consider your camper’s outdoor experience and interests.  And make sure you understand the outdoor and indoor opportunities that are provided in each camp.  Being close to a city center does not mean there’s a lack of outdoor and even wilderness opportunities.
  • The surrounding area is important too.  It’s important to remember that activities at camp aren’t limited to time spent at camp.  Many camps have trip days or other travel opportunities that take campers away from camp for a day and overnight trips.  Check out what is available nearby camp.  Are there opportunities that bolster your child’s summer camp experience?  And are there places to stay, recommended restaurants, etc. if you plan to be in the area for pick-up or drop-off days?

Who else will be at summer camp?

Campers may be tempted to keep their focus “close to home” and choosing a summer camp that is heavily populated by campers from their local area is certainly one way of doing that. A camper may want to go to summer camp with friends. Or they may want to go where nobody knows their name.  There is no right answer. But going outside your comfort zone and making new friends from different places is a hallmark of summer camp. 

It is extremely valuable and rewarding in the short term. And camp friendships make for memorable and important long distance relationships that endure long past the summer. When a camper takes a leap and chooses a summer camp where they will make all new friends (in other words, where they don’t know anyone—yet!), they will end the summer with a special set of friends.  These are in addition to hometown friends.  Having friends in different places at different times of the year is truly extraordinary.

Choosing the Right Camp: Camp Community

  • Home friends and camp friends. There is significance in the quality of your friendships versus the quantity of your friendships.  However, this doesn’t mean that anyone should limit their opportunities to meet new people and build new friendships.  The immersive environment of camp allows for relationships to develop quicker and to a deeper level than most home friendships.  Where else do you learn that your friend prefers the hands-free option of a headlamp or has a particular way of folding her clothes?  And you don’t typically co-write songs to sing along to the bellows of the bullfrogs when you’re hanging out at your friend’s house down the street.  Living and learning in a summer camp community allows you to see the true nature of people and build connections within that truth.  Camp friends truly are the best friends!
  • Friends and bunk assignments. If your child decides to go to camp with a friend from home there are some important details to consider. How does the camp determine bunk assignments, schedule activities, etc. for campers with home friends at camp?  Are friends bunked together?  If not, are there opportunities for your child to hang out with their friends from home? Whatever the case may be, it’s important to be open and honest with camp directors about hometown friendships at camp.  This allows them to utilize this information when planning for the summer.  And it provides them with the opportunity to make sure everyone knows what to expect when your camper and their friend arrive at camp.
  • Cultural diversity in the camp community. In today’s global society many parents value the opportunity to experience new cultures and places.  This can include traveling throughout the United States or to foreign countries.  Part of the magic of many summer camps is the global community that is created as campers and staff from around the world join together each summer.  Do you want your child to be surrounded by people from similar locations and backgrounds?  If not, summer camp is an amazing opportunity for them to learn about people from various walks of life.  Talk with camp directors about their overall camper diversity.  Are there international campers?  And don’t forget about diversity within the American campers as well.

Who works at summer camp?

After fellow campers, counselors often form the heart of the summer camp experience. Though the summer camp team is made up of many different types of staff members, a camper’s counselors undoubtedly are in a position to have the greatest effect on her. Who are these influential people? Also think about the staff in “supporting roles” like Head Counselors, Nurses, and the camp Chef. These individuals often play more behind the scenes role in the camp experience.  However, this does not diminish the impact they have on the camp community.  Knowing their roles and how to contact them, if needed, are important for you as a camp parent.

Things to consider when choosing a summer camp include: How many counselors interact regularly with each camper? Who, if anyone, lives in the bunk with the campers, and who runs activities? Are counselors chosen to work at a summer camp because of their love for young people and their ability to connect with them through certain skills and expertise, or are they just really fun people? Also, how extensive is their training and experience and do they have the preparation needed to make summer camp fun and safe, yet personally challenging, environment?

Choosing the Right Camp: Camp Staff

  • The hiring and training process. When you send your child to camp you are entrusting the camp staff with your most treasured part of your life.  Understanding the hiring and training process for camp staff is key in trusting that your camper will receive the individual care and attention she needs.  Discuss how camp counselors are recruited and vetted throughout the hiring process with camp directors.  And follow-up with questions about the training provided.  What level of training is provided for specialized areas like the Waterfront or Ropes Course?  And how are staff trained to care for things like bed wetting or homesickness?  Ask about training for the upper-level staff and specialized staff like Camp Nurses as well.
  • The role of a camp counselor. It’s important to understand the role of a counselor at each summer camp.  Some camps have “specialists” who instruct activities and “general counselors” who stay in the bunk and accompany campers to activities.  In other camps counselors hold a dual role of activity instructor and bunk counselor.  It’s important to know when your camper can expect to see her counselors throughout the day.  It’s also important to consider who is sitting with your child at meals, accompanying them on out-of-camp trips and leading special events.
  • The supporting cast is important too. There is a variety of staff that play a supporting role in each camper’s experience at camp.  Find out important details about these staff members too.  What level of training or education does the healthcare staff have?  What level of experience do members of the summer admin or leadership team have?  Don’t be afraid to ask about the camp directors as well.  What are their roles, how active are they in the camp community?  And who does your camper go to if they lost something or need more batteries?  These are all important aspects of the overall operation of camp- and your camper’s experience at summer camp.

One last friendly tip: Word of mouth, internet research and personal recommendations are wonderful ways to learn about different summer camps. But this can oversimplify matters, especially when identifying unique qualities of a particular summer camp.  The best way to determine if a summer camp is right for your camper and your family is by seeing things with your own eyes. Either by visiting the camp or by meeting the directors and/or camp families in person. If a face to face meeting isn’t practical, then schedule a meeting by phone or video chat with the camp director. Be prepared to ask questions and don’t hesitate to follow up. The American Camp Association has put together an excellent guide to what to ask during any type of camp visit or interview as you embark on choosing a summer camp.