The school year will end before you know it, and now is the time to make summer plans for kids. Regardless of the program you choose, one thing should be certain: that the camp is run in a way to keep children safe.
Long before my career working with child abuse prevention, I spent summers during high school and college as a camp counselor. I’ve seen the potential ways children can feel unsafe, and the ways they actually can be unsafe. A well-run program, with well-prepared staff, that is monitored by supportive parents can help ensure safety.
Here are some important points to consider:
Supervision. If the children will be transported, will there be someone other than the driver to provide supervision? Excited kids can get unruly and distract a driver; an older child assigned to lead songs and keep order may be enough if no staff member is available. If parents drop off the children, are there procedures to ensure that the child passes from the parents’ supervision directly to a staff member? Is there a safe path to travel when the child leaves the car?
Keeping kids safe. The camp should have policies designed to prevent abuse. These include regulations restricting out-of-camp contact between staff/volunteers and campers, social media contact between staff/volunteers and campers, and explicit rules about physical contact. I’m all in favor of group hugs after the first few weeks once people know each other, and a camp counselor hugging a camper in public, but physical contact when one-on-one should be discouraged, and the campers should always be asked their opinion first.
Parents need to know how children are monitored as they move about the camp — for example, if a child needs to use the restroom. If the policy is to let children go alone, a time limit of no more than 5 minutes should be set. Tight supervision is a must for field trips; assigning buddies and performing constant head counts are basic tools of the trade. And, camp managers should be aware of the prevalence of child-on-child sexual abuse; that five minute rule should also apply if two campers go on an errand together.
Parent involvement. Parents should always be able to observe a camp day. The camp should have a procedure requiring parents to sign in, and parents should be respectful and not interfere with camp activities.
Emotional safety requires attention. If swimming is offered, have the staff been prepared to handle potential discomfort about changing clothes? If there is a focus on sports, are all children encouraged to participate? Is competition kept to a healthy level? Is the discipline consistent with parents’ values? And, how do they stop bullying?
A parent could learn about these issues by interviewing the camp director or talking to parents who sent their children in prior years.
Communicable diseases have been an issue in group activities with kids since long before COVID. Now more than ever, camp counselors have to be willing to promote and model good health habits. Ensure that the camp you choose knows the current local COVID guidelines and is committed to adhering to them.
You can find a checklist to take on your camp tour here. If the program doesn’t measure up, gently speak up — the administration may be willing to take your suggestions.
Summer should be a time of relaxed fun for children, and parents will be able to relax themselves when they know they have chosen a safe summer program.
This post appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, print June 5, on-line at How to pick a summer camp with safety in mind l Expert Opinion (inquirer.com)