Selecting the Best Day Camp for Your Child

How to find a day camp that's safe and suitable

Selecting the Best Day Camp for Your Child“Bor-rring!” That’s how seven-year-old Rylie summed up his $75-a-week day camp last year. “It was run at a Toronto community centre, with lots of teenagers who didn’t seem to be loving their summer jobs,” admits Rylie’s mom, Trish Snyder. Of course, Rylie still fondly recalls the previous year’s expensive adventure day camp, complete with supervised trips to Marineland and Wild Water Kingdom.

Successful day camps build self-esteem, develop new interests and friendships and help fill the yawning summer weeks. But do you have to spend a fortune to find one that’s safe, fun and staffed with enthusiastic, well-trained counsellors? Not necessarily. “What I’ve learned is you can go cheap if your child has a good buddy there, or you can send them where they don’t know anyone, as long as there are fabulous distractions,” says Snyder. Use this advice and the following guides to help you pick the right day camp for your child.

DO ask questions, though you may not get a chance to ask as many as you’d like. “Focus on safety,” says Janice Grift, the director of children’s programs at the University of Manitoba (U of M) in Winnipeg, which offers 60 to 70 day camps for kids from age four to 16, with instructors who are trained in everything from administering first aid to helping special-needs kids. “What are their policies on bullying, behaviour management and monitoring adult-to-camper ratios when swimming?” Research accredited day camp options in your area at websites such as ccamping.org or summer-daycamps.com. “I try to talk to as many parents as I can, but there’s a lot of trial and error,” says Stacy Diamond, a Winnipeg mom whose eldest daughter has been enrolled in several different programs ranging from day camp held in a community-centre basement — not so great — to a drama camp with the Manitoba Theatre for Young People — great!

DON’T stick Junior in theatre camp if you’re the drama queen. “Give them options so they try something different that they like,” says Grift. “Otherwise, the kid becomes bored, acts out and doesn’t want to be there.”

DO prepare your child for day camp, especially if she’ll be attending several over the summer. Joanne Cowan, a teacher and French day camp director in Victoria, says that questions like, “What do you think this camp will be like?” can help her anticipate change.

DON’T assume you can’t afford day camp. Some offer payment plans or an in-house subsidy.

DO share pertinent medical and allergy information about your child and ensure the camp has the means to keep your child safe. Jennifer Rowsell, a Canadian mom living in Princeton, N.J., learned this the hard way when her six-year-old daughter had an anaphylactic reaction after some untrained teenage counsellors mistakenly sat her at the “peanut butter table.” The following week, Rowsell chose a great art camp that discouraged nuts or foods containing them on the premises.

DON’T hide your child’s behavioural issues. Most parents are forthcoming about allergies or asthma but they might not mention if their child has ADD or ADHD because they’re afraid the camp won’t take him or that he will be treated differently. Grift’s advice? Fess up. “We can’t provide the best care if we don’t know what their needs are,” she says.

DO trust your instincts. Many parents consider their children too young for camp, yet half-day programs exist for kids as young as four. If your little one is shy and quiet or has never been away from home, your concerns may be warranted. Otherwise, she’ll probably thrive. You know best.

DON’T send Jacob with a cooler full of cola and a loaf of bread. Seriously, that’s what Grift says one child showed up with. Nutritious lunches and snacks with fruit, vegetables, yogurt, granola bars, cheese and crackers will keep fatigue and sugar highs at bay.

DO make arrangements to ensure your child is picked up on time every day. “When nobody comes to pick up the child, it can be very stressful for them,” says Grift. University or professionally run day camps may have more work-friendly drop-off and pick-up times. “U of M’s Mini-U is the best camp we’ve tried, and they offer drop-off at 8 a.m. and pick-up at 5:30 p.m., unlike most camps that ask for 9 a.m. drop-off and 4 p.m. pick-up,” says Diamond.

DON’T ignore it if your child’s legitimately unhappy. “If anything, some parents don’t rescue enough,” says Grift, who has had to call parents to suggest a different day camp within their program (misbehaviour can sometimes reveal a poor fit). Talk to the day camp staff as soon as possible to figure out the problem and a solution.

Lisa Murphy is a Toronto-based writer and mom who still recalls walking 75,000 kilometres a day at Centre Island day camp when she was six.

Don’t sign them up until you’ve asked these questions in our day camp checklist.

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