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Let's hit the road

With school days dwindling and the summer months looming, you might just want a plan to keep your children active and happy. And if you’re one of the many who believe video games and TV threaten the fun and the exploration of summer, then camp may be one of the greatest experiences you can give to your child.

But before sending kids on this adventure, there are some tips you should know first. Call it Camp 101, a primer just for you on what to expect, and how to react, when your child heads off to camp.We pulled in a few summer camp experts and asked them to offer their advice.

Camp too expensive?

Our illustrious panel includes: Todd Hoffman, Operations Manager at Taconic Retreat and Conference Center, which offers a variety of sleepaway camps in Milan; Greg Buttinger, Director at Camp Hillcroft, a day camp in LaGrange; Jay Maietta, Camp Director of the Town of Fishkill Senior Day Camp; and Patrice Macauley, Director of Camp Ulster, a day camp hosted by SUNY Ulster in Stone Ridge.

1) What are the best ways parents can prepare kids for camp?
Hoffman: Talk about camp ahead of time and help your child develop a plan for new situations that may arise. Describe what it will be like so that your child will begin to get a mental picture of what camp will be like. Arrange a visit to the camp before camp starts. Help your child develop a sense of excitement and anticipation for the adventure.  Reassure them that you love them and are excited to hear all about it when they return.

Buttinger: Allow the child to help in the decision process.  Talk to the child about the activities and friendships to be made.

Maietta: Read the parent letters that are sent home prior to the start of camp, as well as those handed out during the camp season. The majority of the time, everything a parent needs to know about camp is included in the parent letters. Keep copies of your child(s)’ most updated immunization records and physicals on file at home because the camps will need copies prior to the start of camp.

Looking for a special needs camp?

Plan ahead.  Don’t wait until the last day before camp starts to purchase and pack all the needed items: appropriate summer clothing (they will get dirty at camp), sun block, insect repellant, lunch (usually non-perishable), swim gear, sneakers, etc. If your child has any special needs or medical issues, make sure the camp nurse is thoroughly aware of the issue including how to avoid a problem, and what to do in the case of an emergency.

Macauley: (Kids) should…know who to contact in case of an emergency (name and number even if it has to be written). Tell them what to do if they feel the situation doesn’t feel right (i.e. good touch/bad touch). Parents should also let them know that sometimes it takes more then one day to decide if they like camp.

2) Should parents push kids who don’t want to go to camp or who aren’t ready for it, with the assumption ‘they’ll be fine once they get there’?

I would not recommend pushing them to go against their will, but I would encourage parents to find out what concern the child has about going. Then the parent can try to address that area. They may need a friend to go with, or they may not know how to handle a particular situation or special need. We do find that in most cases, homesickness runs its course in about 1-2 days; after that, they are having so much fun they don't want to leave. Parents might consider a day camp to start with and then working up to an overnight camp.

Buttinger: No, have your child visit the camp in the pre-season or during the summer when everything is up and running. When they see all the activities and other children having fun, most likely they’ll change their mind.

Maietta: Usually you can convince a child to try it out at first and they usually do well once they get involved and they realize it is fun. I don’t recommend pushing a child too hard, but it really comes down to the fact that all kids are different and parents (should) know their children better than anyone, and they should know how hard is too hard to push their child. If you push too hard to where it becomes forcing the child, it is like setting them up for failure.

Macauley: Typically no, unless they know this is the usual way the child responds to new situations. It can leave the camp spending more one-on-one time calming the child, which isn’t fair to everyone else who also paid. If they do choose to do this then the parent should be prepared to pick up the child when called, and know that the child might not want to go back and therefore (parents may not be) able to get their money back, depending on the camp’s refund policy.

3) What is the best way to find the right camp for each child?

Hoffman: Do your research. If your child has a special interest, find a camp that specializes in that area (horses, science, sports, arts, etc). Word of mouth is still one of the best ways, so don't be afraid to ask around.

Buttinger: Start early, visit the camp and meet the directors.  Talk to other children and parents. Ask the camp for any referrals.

Maietta: Know what you are looking for prior to shopping around so that when you begin to look at the options, you know what questions to ask. It is also a good idea to ask if the actual director on site is available to talk to, as well. What kind of experience does he/she have? It is good to find out whether the camp is regulated by anyone, such as the Board of Health.

What is the counselor-to-camper ratio?

Macauley: Start with talking to other parents of camps they like and why. Go for camp subjects the child is interested in if there is a choice. Yes, the parent has the last decision, but it is best if you can keep the child in on the discussion and how they feel and what they want. Give them some to choose from so they feel more like it is their decision.

4) Is it beneficial for siblings to go to the same camp or different camps?

I believe that each situation is different. Some siblings may need each other around for support, while others may benefit more from independence. It is also possible for a parent to request that their children be in separate groups while at camp. This gives independence while having a familiar face nearby. All things being equal, the parents may benefit from having their children in the same camp for logistical reasons.

Buttinger: Some camps offer sibling discounts. If it’s a day camp, to only pick up and drop off at one location can save time in a busy schedule.

Maietta: I believe it is beneficial to have siblings go to the same camp. It brings a little bit of a comfort to a child to know that “big brother” is there. However, all children and siblings are different so it all depends on the individuals involved. Most likely, if the siblings are a different age they will be separated during most of the activities, so it is not an issue.

Macauley: It depends on how they normally function together. Sometimes it is good for siblings to each have their own special thing to do and be able to tell about. Other times separating them can stress children. And include them in on the decision. Two of these camp gurus also volunteered a few more helpful hints to leave parents with.

Hoffman: The only other thing that I would add is that camp is a great opportunity for children to make new friends, begin to develop a sense of who they are as a person, become a little more independent, and learn to live in a community.

Macauley: Don’t force a child who is either younger or older then the stated age range of the camp to go unless they are really emotionally, physically, and mentally ready to either be with older children or younger children. I have parents who say their child is advanced for their age (which may or may not be true – something very hard for a camp to judge when we basically only have info from the parent) but that doesn’t mean they are socially or physically ready.

Now that you know the basic how-to’s of camp research, you are ready to begin the search. Nearly all of our experts said that while cost and location are obvious concerns, you also need to find a place that is safe and is going to be comfortable for your child.

Use the Internet’s vast array of research tools to find out about various camps. Word of mouth is also a good idea; talk to other parents about camps you’re interested in. It’s never too early to start looking into summer camps, although registration usually begins in April or May. The rewards of attending camp, making discoveries and meeting new people are an exciting summer journey.

Cade Aespen is a freelance writer living in Dutchess County.