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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Ensuring Happy Campers

September 12, 2013

By Henry H. Bernstein D.O.

Harvard Medical School

Keeping your children busy during the summer can be challenging. One great activity that also can help children mature socially, emotionally, and physically is summer camp.

Why Send Your Child to Camp?

Camp helps kids to discover and learn new skills while exploring their many talents and interests. Camp also gives children the opportunity to make and develop friendships. Some children go to camp with friends from their school or neighborhood, while other children branch out on their own and make all new friends. By learning to get along with children from different backgrounds and to handle new challenges, children can improve their own self-esteem and learn so much more about themselves.

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Types of Camps

Day camps, including those sponsored by schools and playgrounds, offer whole-day or half-day programs. They often provide transportation to and from the camp each day and also may provide lunch for your child. Some day camps are available for children as young as 4 years old. Children over age 6 or 7 may be interested in overnight camps, at which children stay overnight in tents or cabins for periods of time that can range from about one week to two months. All meals are provided.

Although many camps are "just for fun," some are designed for teaching special skills, such as sports, music or science. Camps with specially trained staff are also available for children with disabilities or specific health-care needs, such as cancer or diabetes.

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How To Choose a Camp

With thousands of camps in the United States, finding a camp in your area should be easy. Many community organizations, such as the YMCA, Scouts, and church groups, offer affordable camping experiences for all children. There are also private camps throughout the country; however, some of these can cost several thousand dollars for the entire summer experience.

With so many camp choices, the task of selecting the right one for your child can be difficult. Here are some steps to help focus your search:

Consider your child’s personality. Every child is different, and it is important that you choose the camp that is best for your child. For example, would your child enjoy an overnight camp, or prefer to be away from home during the day while sleeping at home each night? What is your child’s learning style? Would she prefer a camp where the counselors plan the activities, or a less structured environment where she plans most of her day?

Include your child in the decision making. Before starting the search, speak with your child. Does he even want to go to camp? What does he hope to gain from his experiences at camp? For instance, if he is most interested in improving his soccer skills, a soccer camp might be the ideal choice.

Research the camps in your area. When you are researching a camp, think about these questions adapted from the American Camping Association (ACA):

  • What is the camp’s philosophy? Since most camps structure their programs around certain philosophies, you’ll probably want to choose one that matches your parenting philosophy. For example, some camps promote cooperative learning by establishing a noncompetitive atmosphere, whereas other programs use healthy competition among camp teams in an effort to teach survival skills.
  • What training do counselors receive? Find out if they have training in safety, supervision, counseling, problem solving and other areas that apply to caring for children, young and old alike.
  • What are the ages of the counselors? The ACA recommends that 80 percent of camp counselors be 18 years of age or older, with no counselors younger than 16 years old.
  • What is the counselor-to-camper ratio at the camp? The ACA recommends:
    • Overnight camp
      Ages 6 to 8: one counselor for every six campers
      Ages 9 to 14: one counselor for every eight campers
    • Day camp
      Ages 4 to 5: one counselor for every six campers
      Ages 6 to 8: one counselor for every eight campers
      Ages 9 to 14: one counselor for every 10 campers
      Ages 15 to 17: one counselor for every 12 campers
  • Is the camp accredited by the ACA? The ACA provides guidelines and specific standards for camps. To find accredited camps in your area visit the ACA’s Camp Database on the web at or call 1 (800) 428-CAMP.

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How To Prepare Your Child for Camp

Help your child to have an enjoyable camp experience by preparing him or her in advance.

  • Include your child in all the decisions about camp, including where to go and what to pack.
  • Discuss any concerns or questions your child may have about being away from home for a period of time and about the details of the specific camp he or she will attend.
  • Provide a realistic view of camp. Let your child know that there will be good and bad days at camp.
  • If your child is going to overnight camp, tell her you are confident she is mature enough to handle being away from home.

When departing for camp, remind your child that you will miss him, but that you are excited that he will be having fun!

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Henry H. Bernstein, D.O. is a Senior Lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and Professor of Pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.

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