By Kelly Burch
---- — The idea of summer camp brings up great memories for most people: jumping in a cool lake, conquering the ropes course, late nights talking to new friends.
Before those memories can be made, however, parents have to go through the often stressful process of choosing a camp for their child: Day camp or overnight? Co-ed or single sex? The camp that you loved growing up, or something new? Adding to the pressure is the fact that many popular summer camps are opening registration earlier, meaning it’s important for parents to make these decisions long before drop-off day.
The good news is that there is a national organization that’s taking some of the guesswork out of picking a camp. The American Camp Association, or ACA, accredits camps around the country. With more than a century of experience working with camps and 50 years of offering accreditation, the ACA defines the industry standard for quality summer camps.
“The ACA accreditation helps in so many ways,” said Nancy Hartmann, the director of Brooks School Day Camp in North Andover. “It makes sure we are intentional with our programs. And that purpose filters through everything we do.”
Unlike state licensing, ACA accreditation is voluntary. Camps choose to participate in the rigorous program, which regulates everything from human resource standards to protective headgear. Being part of the ACA also gives camps access to professional resources and networks.
“We just ran the largest professional conference for folks who work in camps,” said Lucy Norvell, director of Public Information for ACA New England. “The sessions are designed to talk to professionals about the most important issues in our field in any given year.”
Although that may sound a bit boring compared to the raw excitement of summer camp, skills learned at ACA conferences often have a real effect on campers.
“The organization helps us run quality programs, and exposes us to new ideas,” said Jeff Gleason, the director of YMCA Camp Lincoln in Kingston, N.H. “The ACA is a great camp community, which makes us all stronger and helps us deliver a better experience.”
Last summer, Gaga Dodgeball was a hit at Camp Lincoln, and at camps around New England. The game, a variant on dodgeball that is played in a hexagon or octagon pen, was introduced to many camps through the ACA conference.
“The campers love it,” Gleason said.
From small details like this new game, to larger infrastructure requirements, ACA accreditation demands that camps run fun, educational, and safe programs.
“ACA accreditation really drives home the camp experience,” said Hartmann of Brooks School Day Camp.
Providing the best experience for campers is exactly what the ACA strives to do.
“The job of camp is to reinforce the education that kids get in their homes and in school,” said Norvell of the ACA. “Many, many things that kids are drawn to today, campers have been doing for over 100 years. Camp is a very nice blend of the classic and traditional, but also offering thing that are very new and up- and-coming.”
Before campers can dive head-first into summer fun, families must find the right camp. That’s no small feat.
“We live in a world where over-choice prevails,” said Norvell. “It’s challenging to find the best option out of so many.”
Norvell said that this can be especially true in New England, which has a rich camping tradition.
“The roots of summer camps began in New England, and the summer camp world is thriving here still,” Norvell said. “Part of that has to do with the spectacular geography here in New England. The diversity in landscapes lends itself to activities.
Norvell said the first step to choosing a camp is defining what a camp experience means. Parents who have attended camp, and even those who have not, often have an idea of what camp should be, she said.
“What should it accomplish? What experiences should it provide,” Norvell asked. “Involve the child. They often have thoughts on what a camp experience can be for them.”
Norvell said that when to involve children in the process depends on their age. Younger children should be given a choice of finalists, while older children may like to be involved in the selection process from the beginning.
After families have considered their thoughts on what camp should be, they should think about what is driving the desire to participate in camp. Is the child looking for new independence, or is camp necessary to cover child care? Are they looking to build a specific skill, or expose the child to a range of activities?
“Camp can be a way to further a child’s interest, but it can also be a great way to develop other interests,” Novell said.
Despite parents’ best efforts, sometimes camp matches just don’t work out. Don’t be discouraged, Norvell said.
“You need to reframe the bad experience, and zero in on the aspects that made the camp a bad match,” Norvell advised.
Finally, Norvell said that although summer camp can be expensive, there are options available for families who may be limited by their finances. Non-profit organizations such as the YMCA often run camps that are lower cost, and individual camps offer financial aid programs.
“The process for financial aid varies from place to place,” she said. “It’s variable, but it is there. The best advice is to look early. There is money out there, and the earlier you apply for it, the better.”
Financial incentives such as early registration and sibling discounts can help offset the cost, as can federal tax incentives for childcare.
“Camps and their owners have done a lot of hard work to make it clear how to explore financial aid at their camps,” Norvell said. “There are a lot of people who understand how important is it for every child to benefit from a camp experience.”
What is the ACA? The American Camp Association is a national organization that has been accrediting camps for more than 50 years. Camps voluntarily participarte in the accreditation process, and the ACA reviews them using over 300 standards, such as safety protocols, emergency plans, and communication programs. The ACA also offers training for camp staff, from counselors to directors, and assists families in choosing a camp. Camps file a statement of compliance annually, and are visited by the ACA every three years. Visit the ACA online at www.acacamps.org or www.acanewengland.org to learn more. Some local ACA accredited camps Brooks School Day Camp Location: North Andover. Type of camp: Day. Ages served: 4 to 15. Highlights: Campers at Brooks take part in activities ranging from arts and crafts to gymnastics and boating. All campers participate in swim lessons. A special Teen Quest program and the Vogelsinger Soccer Academy may be of interest. Information: www.summer.brooksschool.org or 978.725.6253. Upcoming events: Free Instructional Soccer Clinic by Vogelsinger Soccer Academy at Brooks School, Saturday, April 27, 1 to 3 p.m. Register at www.vogelsingersoccer.com, or by calling 888.780.2267. YMCA Camp Lincoln Location: Kingston, N.H. Type of Camp: Day and Overnight. Ages Served: 3 to 15. Highlights: Camp Lincoln offers all the traditional camp experiences at its lakeside location, where day camp is run. The overnight component is made up of Teen Adventure Camps, which bring small groups of 12- to 15-year-olds on week-long trips, ranging from a Quebec Urban Adventure to a White Mountain Camping expedition. For More Information: www.ymcacamplincoln.org or 603.642.3361. Upcoming Events: Open House, Sunday, May 5, 12 to 3 p.m, Camp Lincoln. Finding an ACA Accredited Camp "There really is a camp out there for everyone!" said Lucy Norvell, director of Public Information at ACA New England. The ACA's Find A Camp tool (find.acacamps.org) allows parents to search thousands of camps by location, gender served, activities, and many other features. It can even help parents find camps for children with specific special needs, such as nut-free camps, or camps for children on the autism spectrum. If you're still having trouble choosing the right camp, you can contact ACA personnel, who will help you find the right fit for your child.