Sending my first-born off to day camp at the tender age of 5 wasn’t in my original parenting plans. While I had loved being home in the summer with my son, a quick glance at my (rather dismal) bank account convinced me to accept a two-week, well-paying writing job I was offered one July.
I had to figure out how to keep my son occupied and safe during those weeks. Our trusted babysitters and grandparents weren’t going to be available so I started looking into summer camps. With more luck than skill, I found a day camp that had an interesting program and available space.
I signed him up and, to my surprise, he had a good time. For a few weeks, he had things I couldn’t always provide: lots of activities, friends, good company and good cheer. I was a day camp convert.
I remember how tough it can be to sort through the pamphlets and make decisions. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way to help make the process a little easier.
- Procrastination costs. Yes, we may be waist-high in snow but this is the time to start registering for camps. Wait too long and there may not be space available in the weeks or the programs you want (lots of parents want spots in those early weeks of July). There is also a financial incentive; many camps offer a discount to those who pay early.
- Talk to your kids about camp. It can be hard if they’ve never been to one, but they may offer some interesting information about activities they like and things they don’t. Also, try not to let your memories of camp – bad or good – have too much of an influence on the choices you make. As a shy and introverted kid, I found camp a trial, with its (to me) endless emphasis on being part of a group. Yet my kids have embraced the group spirit, returning home at the end of day repeating camp cheers.
- The obvious choice may not be the right one. If your kid loves sports, you might immediately think of a sports camp, perhaps one that specializes in tennis or soccer. But don’t overlook the value of using camp as a way for your child to explore or discover other interests. My son, who tends to prefer reading and computers during the year, adores attending a camp where sports are a major focus. Because of this, he has discovered racquetball and rock-climbing, and he’s improved his skills in soccer and swimming.
- Think about sending your child to the same camp as a friend. One year, my daughter and her friend, who lives three houses away, went to the same camp. It was their first time at this camp. Having a familiar face around seemed to boost their confidence and the counsellors worked hard to ensure they had time together and time apart to make other friends. We parents also appreciated the convenience of shared driving duty.
- Ask plenty of questions. A camp brochure may give you the basic information, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Pick up the phone or drop by a CAMP FAIR (Montreal Families is hosting one in Pointe Claire on Feb. 18, 2018). This gives you a chance to talk with the camp directors or staff, who are responsible for the day-to-day operations and can give you a much better feel for the program. Also, talk with family and friends to get their opinions about local camps.
- Discuss health issues in advance. You’ll be asked to fill out a health form, but depending on the severity of the problem, you may want to discuss the issue in person with the camp director and your child’s counsellor. My son has severe food allergies and I always met with his counsellors on the first day to offer a refresher course in using an Epipen in case of an allergic reaction and to make sure that they knew the precautions that should be taken.
- Fill out all required forms. Once the choice has been made, make sure you fill out all the forms and review the list of suggested (or required) items your child will need to bring. For a day camp, this will usually be a hat, sunscreen, swimsuit and towel plus lunches and snacks. You might want to start labelling early on. I learned the hard way; as we searched for my daughter’s misplaced purple and pink lunchbox, we discovered that at least six other girls had exactly the same one. We finally found it lurking in a locker, but it could have easily been scooped up by another child and toted to a different home.
- Remember that camp isn’t forever. Despite all your careful plans, your kid might not like the camp you’ve chosen. This happened once with my daughter. A combination of factors – her age, a program geared more towards older kids, an inexperienced counsellor – all came together to make her camp stay less than stellar. She complained. I pointed out that I couldn’t keep her home because I had work. She made the best of the situation and we found a new camp the next year. Live and learn.
Most of all, though, don’t delay if you want to have the pick of programs on offer this summer.