This will be my fourth year of attending ACA NJ’s and ACA NY’s Summer Camp Fairs as a camp director. As a parent, I can’t imagine what it is like to attend a fair. While every camp at these fairs is part of the American Camping Association, each one offers a completely different experience. At a camp fair, 30 summer camps displays can all look the same after a few minutes (even some use the same photos!). Every booth has pictures of swim areas, ropes courses, basketball courts, and smiley campers.
Most camp directors will talk about what you want to hear – kids having fun while being safe with an experienced staff. Here is a cheat sheet for the “tough” questions to ask a camp director. “Tough” is in quotations because any experienced camp director will be thrilled with these questions. These questions will not only paint an accurate picture of the camp but make you feel like you had a real conversation about the camp (nothing is worse than sales pitch!).
Top ten questions to ask at a Summer Camp Fair.
1) Do you have open houses or camp tours available before the summer? Trust me, you want to see the camp. You want sit on the bed your child might sleep in, taste the food your child would eat 3 meals a day, see the lake/pool they would swim in. If you can’t tour the facilities prior to camp, this place isn’t worth your time.
2) What is the mission of your camp? This should be an easy question for a camp director to answer. Every camp has a type of experience it provides. If they are “a sports camp” or “horseback riding camp”, what else does the child get out of the camp? If they can’t answer this, definitely move on.
3) What type of child comes to (or succeeds at) your camp? With this one, watch carefully how the camp director talks about children. You’ll know immediately from their tone if this matches up with someone you want watching your child. Don’t be afraid to describe your child in detail and ask them “will my child fit in at your camp?”
4) How experienced are you? Where do you live on camp? Ideally the camp director will answer “this will be my 14th summer working at camp, 6th summer as a director; I’m currently earning my Master’s Degree in Youth Development; I live on site literally in the middle of camp.” (This is my answer!) The camp director should have at least 4 years experience working with children. If the camp director does not live on site, ask "how do they handle issues that happen at night?"
5) How experienced are your summer staff? How many are returning from last summer? A high retention rate (55% or higher) of staff is a good sign that the camp has positive culture. Camp is about creating a community. A solid community among the staff will trickle down to the campers feeling welcomed at camp. You should be more concerned with the staff members’ experience working with children than the employees' age.
6) How many staff live in a cabin with my child? Who else lives in the cabin? Camps will tell you they have a 1 staff to 4 campers ratio, but that doesn’t mean that is who they live with. A sneaky camp director might factor in the maintenance or administration staff into this ratio. Find out who sleeps in the same cabin as your child and you will get a feel of who really watches your child.
7) How experienced is your medical staff? Ideally you want a doctor on site. All ACA camps should have a doctor on retainer that visits the camp when needed. An experienced RN is a great second best. Some camps will only have an EMT on site. If this is the case, how experienced is the EMT? Follow it up with questions of medical emergencies and allergies if needed. They might say all staff are First Aid/CPR certified, but still ask about their lead medical staff.
8) How did you score on your last ACA site visit? This will automatically make the camp director freak out. If they say anything less than 100%, ask them what they had a “no” on. An experienced camp director will be comfortable answering this question.
9) How did you handle the H1N1 last year? Every camp director should talk about hand washing and sanitizing food and living areas. If they stare blankly back at you, run away!
10) Can you tell me about your staff training? Ideally their staff training is at least a week long covering every topic from how to fight homesickness to blood bourne pathogens. Every experienced camp director knows a great staff training leads to a great rest of the summer.
Bonus question if you are feeling saucy: “if your camp is doing so well, why are you here?”. An inexperienced camp director’s jaw will immediately drop. An experienced camp director will talk about how they actively recruit for new families to join their solid program.