Summer Camp Safety: A Guide for Parents
If your child is going to sleep-away or day camp, our experts are sharing tips to help create a positive experience for you and your camper.
By Ashley Antle
Sunshine, outdoor adventure, new experiences, camaraderie and memories — it’s the stuff summer camp is made of.
Each summer, more than 14 million kids and adults attend a camp. Doing so can contribute to a child’s love for nature, their willingness to try new things, social awareness, independence and resilience, according to the American Camp Association (ACA).
“Camp really provides kids an opportunity for independence and to be exposed to things they don’t get exposed to during a traditional school year,” said Katie Campbell, Child Life manager and Camps for Kids coordinator at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “It’s an opportunity to challenge themselves to try something new, to make new friends and to establish community with their cabin.”
But sending your child off to camp can be scary. How do you know it’s a safe place for them physically, mentally and emotionally? Are the people you are trusting to care for your child at camp qualified?
Choosing a Camp
The ACA is a good place to start when determining what to look for in a camp, according to Megan White, camp director of Camp John Marc, a residential Dallas-Fort Worth-based camp serving children and families living with a chronic illness and physical challenges, and a Cook Children’s Camps for Kids partner. The ACA is an accrediting body for camps and is considered the industry’s gold standard for best practices when it comes to safety, staff training and risk management.
“It's a resource that is intended to be used for any parent at any stage to learn about the camping industry,” White said. “I would definitely encourage parents to read up on and learn about our best practices in the camping industry and to find out the qualifications and accreditations of the camp before you send your children to one.”
What makes a good camp? According to a study commissioned by the ACA, campers who experience a sense of belonging, supportive youth-staff relationships and learning that is both experiential and reflective report the most positive attitudes and outcomes from camp.
But safety should be a top priority, too, White says.
“The two most important things that I would say are what are their abuse prevention and camper safety protocols as it relates to mitigating risks at camp.” White said. “One thing that we always say here at Camp John Marc is we can have the best camp cookies, the most comfortable camp beds or the coolest camp store, but if our campers aren't safe, then we’re not doing our job to the best of our abilities.”
While some of this information can be found on a camp’s website, White says to never be afraid to pick up the phone and talk directly to the camp director about their protocols and policies.
“Sometimes this will give you a more honest read on how important these things really are to the camp than what you can get from a manicured website,” White said.
Tips for Parents
If you are preparing to send your child off to camp, be it sleep away or just for the day, White and Campbell share the following tips for making the experience a positive one for you and your camper.
● Don’t be afraid to ask questions about certifications, camper-to-counselor ratio, staff training, camp schedule, etc.
“Communication is key. Ask questions about the schedule the camp follows, where they get their staff and the ratio in regards to campers and counselors. That's important information that needs to be pretty easy to get and for families to inquire about. Don’t assume that it's a popular camp so it will be safe, but make sure that, for those things that are important to you around your child's safety or knowing who will be taking care of them, you get an answer.” – Katie Campbell
“I encourage parents not to get distracted by all of the cool amenities but to focus on the two most important things of how do they train their staff as it relates to preventing child abuse, and what are they doing to ensure a culture of safety. What does that look like for all of their employees, including their kitchen and housekeeping staff and their facilities team? What is their camp culture of safety? These are questions any camp director should easily be able and willing to answer.” – Megan White
● Make sure your child understands personal boundaries and how to ask for help if they feel uncomfortable.
“I really think that parents should have a conversation with their kids at any age about appropriate and inappropriate touch. We teach that a camper should never be touched anywhere that their swimsuit would cover. For males and females alike, that is a good benchmark for their physical safety. I also encourage parents to have a conversation with their kids about asking for help and give their children permission to tell someone they are uncomfortable — whether that's someone in my cabin is making me uncomfortable or an adult that is in the area is making me uncomfortable. Give your children the permission and language to find another adult they trust and ask for help.” – Megan White
● Include your child in the process of choosing and preparing for camp.
“Camp is good for everyone, but not every camp is good for every child. You have to find the right camp for your son or daughter to make sure it's meeting their needs or their interests.” – Megan White
“I think it’s important to involve kids in the whole process of shopping or gathering what is needed for camp and allow them to help pack their bags so that they understand the packing system you are using. This makes them more confident about the new experience.” – Katie Campbell
● Be prepared for outdoor activities and weather changes.
“One minute it could be hot and 100 degrees and the next it could be storming. Make sure that your child has everything they might need for the week, even if it seems random. We don't necessarily always need a rain poncho in Texas in July, but just having it and other little things like a flashlight might turn out to be really useful.” – Katie Campbell
“Pack plenty of sunscreen and a water bottle. We always recommend closed-toe shoes so that you don't stub a toe or get a splinter in your foot.” – Megan White
● Send them with things that will make them feel more at home.
“If there are things from home that help kids feel safe — a stuffed animal, a favorite blanket or something like that — make sure those things are included.” – Katie Campbell
“I encourage parents to send their child with a journal or give them a place or a tool to help them reflect and write about their experience. A Polaroid camera can be great for this, too. A lot of times children get home and parents ask about camp and their campers are too tired or can't remember what happened. So give them at least some tools to record their memories and experiences.” – Megan White
About Cook’s Children’s Health Care System
Cook Children’s Health Care System embraces an inspiring Promise – to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, we’re proud of our long and rich tradition of serving our community. Our not-for-profit organization encompasses nine companies – a medical center, two surgery centers, a physician network, home health services and a health plan. It also includes Child Study Center at Cook Children's, Cook Children's Health Services Inc., and Cook Children's Health Foundation. With more than 60 primary, specialty and urgent care locations throughout Texas, families can access our top-ranked specialty programs and network of services to meet their unique needs. We’ve worked to improve the health of children from across our primary service area of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties for more than 100 years. Based on the exceptional care we provide, patients travel to Cook Children’s from around the country and the globe to receive life-saving pediatric care built on leading technology, extraordinary collaboration and the art of caring. For more information, visit cookchildrens.org.