Day camps mean a summer of fun for legions of Washington-area children. But choosing one can be a headache for their parents.
Some of the essential considerations are dictated by the family's situation. Do the dates of camp sessions coincide with other summer plans? Are the hours and transportation arrangements convenient? How much can the family afford to spend?
And for some, health care considerations are also important. Day camps are not required by law to provide trained health-care personnel. Local health departments that license the camps frequently recommend that the camps follow the American Camping Association's guidelines, but such recommendations are discretionary.
Certain camps do comply with the ACA's suggestions, which include the following: camps should have on duty at all times either a registered nurse or physician, or someone with American Red Cross standard first aid training; camps should require health screening of campers before admission; camps should have on file health histories and emergency phone numbers.
ACA has established more than 200 standards for camps seeking accreditation. In the metropolitan area, only 11 camps in Virginia and seven camps in Maryland are accredited. No camps in the District have received accreditation.
Because camp days are likely to be hectic and wearing, the question of nutrition becomes critical. If lunch is provided, what do they serve? If campers must bring lunch, are refrigerators available? Camps that cannot refrigerate lunches may restrict campers to peanut butter and jelly all week.
For the allergic youngster, parents may want to inquire about air conditioning. Many camps do provide for indoor activities in air-conditioned settings.
For youngsters with special medical requirements, parents should check with metropolitan-region organizations such as the Asthma and Allergy Foundation and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. These groups can give parents names of specialty camps in the area that have a record of service to children who need expert care.
One of the crucial factors in choosing a day camp is the transportation arrangements. Some offer door-to-door bus service at extra cost. Many buses are not air conditioned, and campers may be crowded three to a seat -- making a lengthy trip in summer heat an unpleasant experience. Few buses are equipped with seat belts -- an important issue, particularly if the camper is under 6. Also, most camps do not provide an adult chaperone for the bus trip.
Some camps use "pick-up points." Potomac Camp in McLean, for example, last summer established some 20 designated pick-up points throughout the metropolitan area and provided counselors or aides to meet campers awaiting the bus in the morning and to ride home with them each afternoon. Other camps using this system, however, have fewer collection spots and less staff support.
Transportation safety can become a factor even if your child is not riding the bus to and from camp. Most camps that do not have swimming pools bus campers for swim sessions. At Sidwell Friends Day Camp in Bethesda, for example, half-day campers confine their water activities to wading pools and sprinklers while older children are bused to a private pool about eight minutes away.
Parents need to take a child's interests and stamina into account when selecting a camp. Some area day camps, like Valley Mill in Germantown, conduct almost their entire program outdoors. Others, like Green Acres in Rockville, provide more indoor activities.
It is also important to consider how a camp program adapts to inclement weather. Many of the camps best equipped to deal with uncomfortably muggy, hot days are located on school campuses, which tend to have air-conditioned rooms more readily available.
The best camps take into account both physical and emotinal well-being. As an adjunct to physical accomplishments, the child should be developing social skills and self-confidence as part of his camp experience.
An exceptional counselor, of course, can transform an otherwise mediocre camp experience into an exciting one -- just as an inadequate counselor can discourage even the most intrepid youngster. For this reason, it is useful to talk to camp directors about camper-counselor ratios -- as well as the age and experience of the counselors on staff.
Most counselors are high school and college students. Many area camps use a system like that of St. Alban's Day Camp in Northwest,) where one third of the counselors are trained teachers, one third are college students and one-third are high-schoolers.
Also, ask about the camp's policy on age and sex mixes. Are campers with children their own age, or are they combined with older and younger children? Different children thrive in different settings -- and some camps will be flexible on the age-mix issue. Many camps will put your child in a group with a friend if you request such placement in writing. If your child enjoys playing with boys and girls, a camp that automatically separates the sexes may not be appropriate.
Beginning campers may find it helpful to start off the summer in the first session of camp to make sure they are well oriented and integrated into the camp experience. When a new camper joins at a later session, he may feel intimidated by the relative expertise demonstrated by fellow campers.
Certain camps can accommodate a youngster's special needs. Maret, Sidwell Friends and St. Albans camps, among others, provide half-day sessions for younger campers. This can be a helpful introduction to camp for the under-6 set. Many camps also offer extended hours for an additional fee.
Some camps operate under a so-called "campus choice" program. In such a program, campers are not obligated to participate in any set program but are encouraged to select areas of activity of individual interest. Such programs work well under well-managed conditions. At St. Albans, campers and their parents choose five areas of concentration for the summer.. But with at other camps with too little adult guidance, girls may gravitate toward indoor activities while the boys opt for outdoor exercise.
It is important to check on a camp's visiting policy before enrolling. Camps that allow parents to drop by at will relect confidence in management and programming. Camps that discourage parents from stoping by should explain why this is so. (Often camps are quite flexible on this issue except where very young campers are involved.) Some camps have designated visiting days when campers combine demonstrations of routine camp activities with programs designed specifically for their guests.
New campers may benefit by the opportunity to visit the new camp before the summer begins. Many camps, like Valley Mill in Germantown, schedule open houses for prospective campers in the spring. Some camps, like Mater Dei in Bethesda, will offer a tour of the facilities if you call for an appointment.
As a final consideration, bear in mind that most camps have a refund policy. If your youngster is miserable in camp -- after a reasonable trial period -- you might consider withdrawing the child. The camper who is unhappy in one camp may well flourish in another.
In reviewing the chart below, keep the following things in mind: Many camps have separate, shorter camps for 3- to 5-year-olds; some camps offer special fee arrangements. The counselor:camper ratio is tricky because some camps include 13- to 16-year-olds as counselors, others do not. If you are concerned, speak to the camp director.