How to Choose a Summer Camp or Outdoor Program

outdoor programChoosing a summer camp or outdoor program is difficult for any parent, but the search can seem overwhelming when your child has behavior problems, attention disorders, or learning disabilities.

Parents need to make some decisions concerning the type of program that is most appropriate and then gather some basic information about programs offering this type of experience.

Friends, relatives, or neighbors may have recommendations based on their experiences. If you’re looking for a religious program, find out if your place of worship or religious organization sponsors any camps, or knows of a related organization that runs a camp. Your local Y, Scouts, Camp Fire Boys and Girls, the school system, or recreation department may also sponsor outdoor programs.

Camp fairs, which take place in many locations around the country, are an excellent place to pick up literature, talk to staff, and ask questions. Camp fairs are usually advertised in newspapers, magazines, and other local media.

Consult with your child’s therapist on therapeutic outdoor programs if adventure therapy has been recommended.  Your child’s home therapist will have some level of involvement during your child’s residential stay and after-care.

Research any program thoroughly. Learn the program’s philosophy and ask the program to describe its goals and mission. Find out how long the program has been operating. Ask about the admission criteria. Don’t hesitate to ask questions!

Talk directly to the staff at the outdoor program and not independent marketers who often misrepresent themselves and give misleading information. You should be able to speak directly with the program director, counseling supervisor, clinical director, and medical staff.

Ask about the education and certification of the director and other program staff.  Find out the ages of the counselors and how they are screened, chosen, and trained. Find out if there are any current lawsuits against the program, and if any staff member has ever been charged with physical or sexual misconduct against a child. Find out about the staff turnover rate.

Ask about the qualifications, training and licensure of the program’s medical staff.  Most programs have an on-site infirmary staffed by a nurse or other qualified medical personnel.  In addition to treating cuts, insect bites and other injuries, infirmary staff are responsible for storing and administering medications and monitoring children with special medical needs.

Check on how the program is licensed and/or accredited.  Most states require licensure although this varies from state to state. The program director can tell you how to contact the state licensing agency to check the program’s compliance history ― this is a matter of public record.

Accreditation is voluntary and the standards for accreditation by the American Camp Association are more stringent than what the state requires. Ask to see a copy of the last accreditation report or their last safety report.

Other accrediting agencies such as the Council on Accreditation (COA) and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) accredit some programs.

Be sure to ask for references, the names of parents and teens who attended the program and who would be willing to talk with you and your child about their experiences.

Other important information to know:

  • Health and safety procedures, including accident and emergency procedures
  • Number of participants and their ages
  • Rules and consequences policy
  • Family involvement, including progress reports, communication with staff, and communication with your child
  • Health insurance coverage

An important factor in finding the right camp or outdoor program is the trust and comfort level between parents and staff. However, trust must be backed up by facts. The more parents and the program believe in each other and are working toward the same goals, the better the teen’s chance of a positive, enriching, and empowering experience.

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