Summer Day Camp Safety: 13 Questions Parents Should Ask

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By Mary L. Pulido, Ph.D.

Kids love summer camp for the boost of independence it gives them. But as a child protection expert, for me summer camp brings to mind thoughts of safety procedures and emergency aid measures that should be securely in place at each site. Here are a few questions that I recommend parents ask before they sign their child up for camp—or, if it’s too late for that, before dropping them off on the first day.

1. Does the camp have ACA accreditation? The American Camp Association evaluates a camp’s safety, health, program and camp operations. Some states have more in-depth standards needed for camp operators. New York State, for example, requires camp operators to develop a written plan which reflects the camp’s compliance with health code requirements.

2. How are staff screened? It’s good to know the background and experience of the counselors caring for your child. The camp operator should ensure that staff have appropriate qualifications needed for the job, such as licenses and certifications. Some states require a criminal background check and a search of the sex offender registry, too.

3. What is the ratio of staff to children? In day camp, there must be one counselor for every six children under the age of 6; one for every eight children between the ages of 6 and 8; and one for every ten children who are between 9 and 14. You should also ask the camp to explain how supervision of campers takes place, particularly on field trips and during activities that may be risky, such as swimming

4. What safety trainings does staff receive? Camp staff should be trained in safety regulations, emergency procedures, child abuse identification and reporting, appropriate behavior and boundaries between campers and staff, and handling behavioral problems.  Parents should find out how the camp disciplines children, and in what type of circumstances they would be contacted if their child’s behavior was problematic.

5. How does the camp handle bullying? Parents need to know that their child won’t be bullied and what will happen in the event that their child does the bullying.  All camps should have an anti-bullying policy that emphasizes the expectations for behavior, shared with parents and campers before camp starts. Counselors should be trained in intervention techniques and these should include fair and reasonable discipline and consequences for bullies. Cyberbullying is a far-too-common occurrence these days, and if campers have smartphones, or access to computers, the policy should cover bullying through social media, too.

6. How does the camp create a safe emotional environment? Children may experience anxiety about fitting in, or simply feel shy when they are dropped off at camp. They may not be used to being left with strangers, changing for swimming with other children, or being grouped with a “buddy” they don’t know.  It’s important for parents to know that the counselors will talk to children and ask, “How do you feel about being here?” on the first day. Children should know who they can go to if a problem comes up—and preferably, this will be a list of several people. 

7. How will your child be oriented to the camp? It’s recommended that the child receive a tour of the camp that includes both the fun spaces, and those that are potentially dangerous or off limits. The Buddy System, used often in swimming excursions, should be explained, as should the plan that is followed if a camper gets lost. Fire drills, evacuation procedures and the importance of not playing with matches/lighters should be reviewed as well.

8. How does the camp handle emergencies? Parents should ask about past emergencies, including injuries and deaths, and the plan that the camp follows when emergencies do occur. This includes situations such as a lost child, a child hurt during an activity, or a child becoming ill with food poisoning or having a severe allergic reaction. Find out about CPR and First Aid certifications, what type of medical staff is available, and hospital affiliation.  On the flip side, parents should provide a full description of any medications their child needs (also find out how these are stored, distributed, and recorded), allergies, and their emergency contact information.

9. What does the camp practice for sun safety? Children should come to camp equipped with UVA/UVB sunscreen, and counselors should make sure that it’s used consistently and reapplied after swimming. Parents should dress their child with a hat with a 4 inch brim, UV-rated sunglasses and long sleeve shirts. The camp should schedule outdoor activities in the early morning or late afternoon, if possible, for when the weather is milder.  Also inquire whether your kids will be reminded to drink water, as heat-related illnesses can occur after children run around in hot weather.

10. What are the camp’s practices for water safety? The camp should know your child’s swimming level and ideally, lesson plans that meet their abilities should be in place. Children must always be supervised when in or around water, by a certified lifeguard. It’s recommended that counselors supervising water activities, such as swimming, canoeing, sailing, or rowing, have demonstrated skill in water rescue and emergency procedures, and have been certified by the American Red Cross.

11. What about bug safety? Parents should ask how the camp keeps mosquitos and ticks at bay, especially on hiking trips in the woods—some children are actually allergic to mosquito bites, and tick-borne illnesses like Lyme are serious and on the rise in some areas of the country. Children should bring an insect repellent to camp, and parents should make sure the camp will help children apply it. 

12. What provisions are made if your child is developmentally challenged? There are additional requirements for camps serving children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy, autism, mental disability, or epilepsy: There must be a qualified camp director with experience in working with the developmentally disabled on site; and the ratio of staff to children may be as small as one counselor for every two children. Parents should make sure that the camp facilities, grounds, and vehicles accommodate their child’s needs. The camp health director must also be located on-site during camp operation.

13. How does the camp screen visitors? Make sure that there’s a procedure for keeping unauthorized visitors away from campers, and that the camp accounts for attendance and dismissal. They should require you to designate how your child will be leaving camp at the end of each day, and given them a list of names of people have permission to visit or escort your child home.

Forewarned is forearmed. Knowledge is power. Don’t be afraid to ask these—and other—questions before you entrust your child to a summer camp.  Let’s ensure that your children have a wonderful and safe experience this summer!  For more information on keeping your child safe visit the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

Photograph via Leonard-Eissner in Offenbach im Main, Kletterpark/Wikimedia