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Mendo Lake Family Life

9 Essential Things to Know About a Summer Camp

By Sandra Gordon

As more Californians become eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, camps are working out how to hold in-person, virtual, and hybrid programs. Come to our Virtual Camp Fair at to research camps. And then, when you’ve found your favorites, ask these questions.

1. What will my child do there? Many camps will say they offer something for everyone—from basketball, theater activities, music, sports, horseback riding, archery, robotics, rock climbing, arts and crafts, or water sports. Still, to narrow your camp selection, determine the camp’s main activities. At camp director Sam Doescher’s program, for example, “you might love archery, but if you hate the water, you might not have the best time because you’re in the water every day learning to fish, water ski, knee board, wake board, or sail. Archery is just a small portion of our program,” Doescher says.

2. Is the camp accredited? American Camp Association (ACA) accreditation signals that a camp has met or exceeds all state camp requirements. ACA accreditation requires documented background checks, and certifications.

3. Does the camp have a philosophy? The answer to this question can help you get a sense of the camp’s overall mission. Traditional summer camps can provide the opportunity to build friendships, foster a sense of independence, develop social skills, try new things, and learn how to fail in a safe and structured environment. “Our philosophy is we provide campers a noncompetitive environment with which they can grow and enjoy their camp experience,” Doescher says.

4. Does the camp have many returning campers? A decent retention rate—of at least 50 percent—signals that campers are satisfied enough to want to come back. Ideally, the camper retention rate should be 60–70 percent, Doescher says. Ask about returning counselors, too. Again, a decent camp counselor retention rate should be 50 percent or greater.

5. What qualifications do the counselors have? At the best camps, “all counselors should have to undergo a background check, be vetted through the national sex offender database, and have been trained to report any sort of sexual abuse,” Doescher says. From a water safety perspective, at least 75 percent of the staff should be certified to be lifeguards and to perform CPR. Ideally, senior counselors should be high school graduates and above; head counselors should be graduating college seniors, college graduates, or graduate students.

6. How does the camp handle meals? If you have a picky eater, be sure the camp has plenty of mealtime options, as in buffet-style meals, a variety of food stations, or cereal availability. If food allergies are a concern, ask about the camp’s food allergy policy and practices, such as how far the PB&J station is from the nut-free table in the camp cafeteria.

For food in general, review the camp’s sample online menus and check out the camp’s food philosophy. Some camps will feature only fresh ingredients, from-scratch cooking, or “healthy” foods. At other camps, not so much.

7. What happens if my child gets sick or injured? Ideally, a nurse should be onsite from early morning until bedtime, then on-call through the night, with counselors trained to dispense medications and first aid.

8. Will my child be allowed to bring a phone? The answer to that can vary depending on the camp’s policy. It’s up to you to decide how off the grid you’d like your child to be. At some camps, no electronics are allowed, including in camper cabins. At other camps, campers can use computers at the facility but not their phones.

9. What does this camp offer others don’t? Many camps now offer trendy features, such as a GaGa pit, a water mat, an indoor arcade, and robotics classes. But innovative camps will offer something extra special—a signature activity that campers will hopefully come to associate with the camp years later. At Doescher’s camp, it’s learning to roll logs in water. 

Sandra Gordon is an award-winning freelance writer.