In my 25 years involved in camp administration, I found very early on in my experience that the concerns of the parents and guardians of the prospective camper are twofold: Is the camp a safe place for my child and will my child have fun? When addressing parents, either at offseason open houses or at pre-camp orientations, I found it very important to have the parents understand that ensuring safety of their children should be of the highest priority and that offering kids fun must never supersede the importance of making sure they are safe and secure every minute of their day of fun. Operators of the "good camp" believe "Safety always comes first."
In order to receive a permit to operate each summer, camp directors must submit a "Camp Health and Safety Plan" that gets reviewed and approved by the county health department and checked for full compliance in at least two unannounced site inspections when the camp is in session.
Your Child Safer in Camp Than School?
I often tell parents investigating camp options that, as a retired New York state public school teacher, I believe that the grounds and facilities of a summer camp in Westchester undergo more scrutiny for safety concerns than than those of their child's local school. As many on my staff through the years were public school teachers, we'd often recall how one week before an announced inspection our building principals would instruct us to correct any issues in our classrooms or workrooms that might produce a code violation. We knew the day we could expect the fire inspector and we were ready to get a pat on the back from our head of maintenance for being compliant. We also knew that the one inspection would be it until the following school year.
A "good camp" director, or his or her designated administrator, makes routine safety checks throughout the week to visit sites and facilities while staff are engaging kids in activities. The inspections include such things as checking to make sure that instructors or coaches are keeping exits and hallways clear of supplies or equipment, that kids must never left alone without a staff member who is at least 16-years-old, that proper camper-to-staff ratios are met during an activity, that the workplace does not provide any tripping hazards or sharp tools or electrical devices are out of reach of the kids, that, in effect, each staff member is fully compliant with the camp's health and safety plan.
Importance of Camp as Community
A "good camp" makes campers know early on in orientation and reinforces it throughout the session that each child deserves to be respected, that we don't tolerate bullies, that we don't poke fun at anyone for the way they look or speak, or mock the quality of their work or their play in camp activities.
Every camp has its signature programs, the bells and whistles and all, but a "good camp" strives to administer a program that fosters a strong sense of community, one that promotes the notion that each camper and staff member is a valued member of that community. In capping my message to the campers about how we should treat each other with respect and kindness, I would point to the logo on the camp T-shirt and say, "I am a Cavalier, you're a Cavalier, and the campers sitting to your left and right are Cavaliers, and that makes us one big family, each of us caring about the other, here for one reason -- to enjoy one great summer."
As we approach the time when parents start looking at summer camp options, I would encourage families to be sure to attend open houses and any "Camp Nights' offered by their local school communities and not just take "word of mouth" endorsements on face value without doing due diligence and meet the camp directors in person. Keeping all I've said in mind, make sure you ask the director, "What's so "good" about your camp?" Take special note of the answer, for it might tell you all you need to know.