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Preparing kids for day camp

10 key factors to evaluate when deciding on the best camp for your kids

Preparing kids for day camp

ummer day camp is a place where children can stretch their minds, exercise their bodies, develop new interests and forge lasting friendships. For young children, it is a good introduction to the camp experience.

For older ones, it is a way to enjoy the activities without the overnight option. For parents, it can be a bit trickier to navigate. The options seem endless, the costs add up and our kids insist on having their own opinions and making choice that differ from your own. Day camp programs vary from one setting to the next.

So how can you help make the most of your child's day camp experience?

1. Consider interests. Day camps offer a host of options that include everything from one centralized activity to a variety of traditional camp fun. Talk with your child about his interests and what he would like to gain from the experience. Would he enjoy an assortment of activities or does he want to concentrate on one skill, such as soccer or art?

READ MORE: Day Camp Lunchbox Essentials

2. Ponder program length. Day camps range from several hours to a full day and can run from one week to an entire summer. How long your child should participate in a program will depend largely upon his age, developmental level and previous camp experience. First time campers would do well starting in a partial- to full-week program. Experienced campers may enjoy one that runs throughout the summer. Even if your child decides to stay at camp all summer, consider allowing a few weeks break between school and camp (and vice versa) for down time.

3. Look at location. If you choose a day camp close to home, commute time will be less and your child may already be acquainted with some of the other children. A day camp near your employer, however, would give you quick access to your child, in the event of an emergency. But if your child needs additional morning or afternoon childcare, you may want to consider a program close to your sitter.

READ MORE: 8 ways to pay for camp

4. Ask about staff. Find out what the camper-to-counselor ratio is. Ideally it should be six campers to one counselor, as recommended by the American Camping Association. What experience and/or training do the counselors have? How are they selected? What is the camp's discipline policy? Are they trained to take care of health concerns such as asthma, allergies and dispensing medicine?

5. Focus on the facility. Ask about indoor and outdoor facilities. Is there ample indoor space for children to play during inclement weather? What do they do if it rains all week? Is the outdoor equipment and grounds well maintained and safe? Are the children's swimming skills tested before they are allowed to enter the water? Is the staff certified in lifesaving and present during water activities?

6. Investigate cost. Inquire about additional fees. Some day camps have a base price but charge extra for trips, special events and activities. If the camp you want to send your child to costs more than you can afford, find out if there is a scholarship program. Also, ask about a refund policy, in the event of an illness or family emergency.

READ MORE: Find terrific camps to consider here

7. Arrange a pre-visit. Many day camps have open houses prior to season start up. Find out if the camp you have chosen has one. If not, make other arrangements to introduce yourself to those who will be caring for your child. Since open houses are a good time to gather information, jot down any questions you have before leaving home. If they are not addressed during this time, ask to speak with someone before securing your deposit.

8. Fill out forms. During your pre-visit, you may receive forms to fill out. When it comes to medical forms, be thorough and specific. If your child was on a medication during the school year but will be taken off of it for the summer, make sure the camp is aware of this as it could cause an extreme change in behavior. Insect and food-related allergies should be listed too. Equally important is to share other concerns, such as if your family is going through a divorce or has experienced a recent death, as this may affect how your child interacts throughout the day.

Remember, camps look out for the physical and emotional needs of your child, so the more information you provide, the better equipped they will be. You will also be asked to fill out an emergency contact form, which lists another designated individual to call if you cannot be reached in the event of an accident or illness. While it is imperative to have an appointed individual, equally important is that the person knows she is designated as such. Every year camps contact the emergency person listed and she was not informed she was "on call." The best advice? Check with that individual before writing the name down.

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9. Peruse policies & procedures. Camp should give you materials on camp policies, procedures and planned activities. If you and your child know what to expect and what is expected of you, camp will run smoother. Most camps have a weekly schedule so parents know what the upcoming activities are. Talk with you child about what is planned. If she cannot participate due to health reasons, make sure you (not your child) inform the camp.

In recent years, many day camps have developed strict policies about leaving technology items - cell phones, handheld games and other tech toys - at home. Their philosophy is day camps are designed to be enriching experiences and the children should be engaging in these activities rather than playing with electronics. If restricted items are brought to camp, they may be confiscated and returned at the end of the day in hopes the child gets the message.

10. Keep the line of communication open. Talk about camp before it even starts. Reassure your child of the positive experience he will have. At the end of each camp day, find a block of uninterrupted time where you can listen as he shares his adventures.

Ask what he liked about camp and if there were any things he didn't like. If he is having a hard time articulating what happened, break it down by activities -"What crafts did you do?" "Did you play any outdoor games that involved balls or running?" "Who did you play with at the pool?" "Who did you sit with at lunch?"

Above all, encourage your child to always do his best, obey the rules and be respectful of others, and chances are, he'll have a great time. 

Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.