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How to guide parents considering summer camp for their child

By Brian McNeill

Summer is approaching and families are thinking about summer camp. Camps can be a great experience for children and come in a variety of formats. Let’s talk about how you can promote age-appropriate camp experiences when parents ask, “Is my child ready for camp? How might she benefit from it?

The American Camping Association believes an organized camp experience is a vital component in the development and education of the whole child. Various organizations have found that through camp, youth:
  • develop lifelong skills
  • acquire independence
  • unplug from technology
  • learn social skills and how to meet new friends

According to the YMCA, camping teaches self-reliance, a love for nature and the outdoors and the development of attitudes and practices that build character and leadership. But how can we help parents choose a camp for their child?

Camp formats vary. Some communities offer day camps -- a great way to gradually introduce the camp experience for both the child and the parent. Some day camps are only half days (morning or afternoon), while others offer full-day camps. Some day camps may last multiple days, to enhance the camp experience. Overnight camps can range from a few days’ up to a few weeks’ long.

As a youth worker, you can help parents explore the variety of camp experiences available. Half-day camps are ideal for children in kindergarten through second grade. Full-day camps are a great option for grades three and four to prepare them for a longer experience. Overnight camps might be right for youth in fourth through sixth grades. Remember that all youth are different; some may be ready for camp experiences sooner than others.

For youth in grades seven and above, camps can offer leadership experience, so encourage them to apply to be camp counselors. In this role, they will help to plan and/or carry out the camp, working with adult staff to offer a full camp experience to younger youth. Research in the 4-H program supports the idea that youth leadership roles in camping may enhance the life skills outcomes of youth who serve in leadership roles.

As youth workers, it’s important for us to connect parents to camping opportunities during the summer. With the variety of camp formats, there is a place for all youth to experience the non-formal learning that happens in an outdoor environment.

So, I would like you to think about these questions and challenges: How are you going to help parents learn about camping opportunities? How can you challenge youth to try something new and attend a camp? How do we help families see the overall benefits of a camp experience?

-- Brian McNeill, Extension educator

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  1. Brian, Camp is a great opportunity for youth to step out of their comfort zone - whether it's unplugging from technology and socializing face to face with new people or developing or enhancing a skill or just enjoying the outdoors and a slower pace of life. As youth workers we probably need a two-prong marketing approach - one to the youth and one to the parents. One of my success stories of getting kids to attend camp is when they know some of the staff at camp - it's a sense of security as well as a role model for them at camp.

    1. Karyn, thanks for commenting on this blog article. Yes, we really should look at how we market camping experiences because there is so much that is experienced at camp. I especially think about the communication skills that is developed by the interaction at camp.

  2. Thanks for this timely post, Brian. Related, I encourage you and others to consider submitting papers to the Journal of Youth Development’s next special issue on the Value of Camp Experiences for Positive Youth Development. See the call for papers at:

    1. Kate, thanks for your comments. Yes, I will try to encourage others who work with camps to submit to the journal. That is a great way to share our work and experiences. Will take a look.

  3. Hi Brian. Thanks for this post. In my experience, it seems important to consider the motivations of parents to either engage or not engage in camp experiences. For many who want to send their child(ren) off to camp, it may be rooted in personal experience with camp - meaning they attended in their youth and had a positive experience, along with other motivations. However, there are also parents who may not have had a camp experience (lack of familiarity) or the experience may have not been positive (so incredibly unfortunate). I'm one who attended residential camp for many years, and I am effervescent of my experiences. As a youth development professional (and a parent), the American Camp Association (ACA) is a wonderful organization, rich with resources to support parents and families, along with professionals. One of resources I think is really powerful is the variety of research by ACA on the Benefits of Camp found here:

    ACA also offers a tool to help parents find camps based on the needs and desires of the youth/family. The database is a great place to begin considering camp options, and exploring the variety of opportunities.

    1. Becky, Thanks for your response and a great list of other places parents and youth development professionals can look at. I would agree that helping parents who have not ever camped to see the benefits for their children.

  4. One interesting data point to consider in this discussion is that in 2016 we surveyed over 550 campers from 8 different 4-H camps in Minnesota and found that the average number of first year campers at those camps was 40%. With this number of new campers coming into 4-H camps each year the 4-H camping program should be growing quickly. I think an additional part of promoting our camp experiences is encouraging parents to choose 4-H camp again the next summer. One way to do this is to send campers home with an item that demonstrates that campers enjoyed camp and also that they learned important skills like friendship and independence while at camp. In the past I have used campers' nametags as a place to recognize they completed certain learning objectives at camp. Instagram and Facebook updates from camp also keep parents looped in to the activities at camp and strengthen a connection between families and camp.

    1. Betsy, I like the name tag idea. There were a couple years in a row we did a parents newsletter and sent home with the campers. We tried to cover all of the things that happen at camp because we know that many times youth will say they had "a good time" but forget some of the other details of their experience. I think that was a piece that parents really appreciated.


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