In the camp world, we encounter many hurdles, challenges, and unique situations in our efforts to provide a quality camp experience for children. Some children present with physical limitations, others with psychosocial concerns, and many with unique requests for special accommodations. All of these children, however, present with parents. Parents have questions, concerns, and anxieties regarding the camp experience and how their child will be cared for in that environment (Ditter, 2009). This article discusses information sharing from parents, the information camp professionals provide to parents, and potential special situations that might require additional interaction between the two parties.
When the search begins for a summer camp experience, parents are asked to submit information to the camp. The application information centers on demographics, emergency contacts, health issues, and special accommodations. In many situations, children have special needs related to food allergies, physical support, or social adaptability. For example, a child applies for camp who is allergic to peanuts, wheat, and eggs; a child needs a wheelchair for long-distance walks and the campsite has all dirt and gravel roads; or a child has high-functioning Asperger’s but has trouble making friends. All of this information is important for camp professionals to receive on the camper application or proactively prior to the experience. Camp professionals want to adequately prepare the facility and the staff to care for the child.
Anecdotally, we know that camps are not receiving complete and thorough applications from parents. The applications are often missing critical information, such as allergies, emergency contacts, and health alterations (i.e. asthma, hypoglycemia, previous orthopedic injuries) that would help keep the child safe at camp. Many camp professionals have shared how they work frantically just days before camp in an effort to complete applications by making phone calls, writing e-mails, and having repeated contact with parents. How do we encourage parents to submit complete information? How might camp professionals better educate parents and guardians about the importance of complete camp application information?
Provide Proactive Information
While having parents share information is an essential piece of any camp’s risk management plan, camp professionals have a responsibility to communicate with parents regarding expectations, requirements, and concerns. Camp directors, medical personnel, and staff should consider areas where they may not be providing effective guidance to parents. Most parents have expectations of the camp experience. If expectations don’t match the outcomes, then individuals may develop a negative feeling about the experience. However, providing information proactively can often marginalize these feelings and help families see that camps are prepared, even in unexpected circumstances, to safely care for their child (Henderson, McFadden, & Bialeschki, 2005).
Parental communication can and should start before camp begins, even before the application is submitted. A wealth of information can be provided to parents prior to the decision to send the child to camp — on topics such as technology, camp site, staff, supervision, activities, homesickness, and medical support. Much of this information can be provided via Web site, brochures, pictures, or flyers.
Technology is an integral component of a child’s life and education today. Camps, therefore, are attempting to identify their position on the use of technology in camp. Some day camps or shorter residential camps may be choosing not to allow technology in their settings as they want to use the time to connect children with one another, nature, and physical activity. Other camps, which might be several weeks in duration, may find technology, such as cell phones, iPods, iPads, and electronic books, to be a needed break from the hustle of the daytime activities.
Once a camp makes a decision about technology, the next step is to effectively communicate that decision to parents and families prior to the camp experience. Consider a high-functioning child with Asperger’s who might do fine in camp other than needing music from his or her iPod to go to sleep. How would your camp facility handle this situation? Would this child be able to attend the camp? A parent who brings a child on camper arrival day with the expectation of iPod use at night — which may not be the camp’s policy — can create a difficult situation for both the parent and the camp. Giving parents the camp “technology policy” proactively can help set the stage and allow them to have a discussion with the child. The use of technology in each camp is a decision of that facility and the structure of the camp program. Whatever technology is allowed or not allowed, help parents prepare the child for the expectations prior to arrival day and eliminate bar¬riers to a safe, fun camp experience.
A second evolving concern is notification of parents while the child is at camp. This parental concern can be addressed in preparation for camp as well as during the camp experience. What events and information trigger a phone call to the parent? When are parents notified? How are they notified? Who makes the call? Do parents have preconceived expectations about when you should call? How do you handle the child who calls the parent from camp saying they want to come home? What are best practices for your camp setting? All of these questions are important considerations as a camp makes decisions about notification practices.
Parents often struggle, and rightly so, with releasing their child(ren) to a group of individuals unknown to them or their child. The staff may be new, the camp facility new, and the daily structure unknown to the parent and child. This parental concern is heightened when a child has special healthcare needs that may require more intensive medical oversight and care. Connecting with the parent regarding notification practices prior to camp arrival is an important feature to help parents understand the camp operations and policy. This early education will help align parent expectations with camp outcomes.
Since the American Camp Association (ACA) health and wellness standard (HW.10) defines the need to provide to parents, in writing, the various situations in which parents would be notified regarding their camper, camps should make parents aware of their adherence to the standard (2012). Providing parents a notice of when they will be notified can help them form realistic expectations. Consider situations in which your facility might find it essential to contact the parent. Times, such as, when:
- Camp staff have concerns about a child’s health
- A camper has to stay in the medical facility/clinic overnight
- There are questions about a child’s medications
- The camper needs offsite medical attention
- There are behavioral concerns
Each facility can benefit by identifying situations that would initiate contact with the parent and incorporate this into the camp procedures.
During the camp experience, staff have many opportunities to “care for” the parent through established communication channels. Some camps may post camper pictures on the Internet, some allow letter writing, and others may make calls or write e-mails to discuss camper performance or changes in camper status. One facility allowed campers to create a newsletter about daily activities that was e-mailed to parents. Each of these can be effective communication tools when used in tandem with properly preparing the parent for what to expect while the child is at camp.
After-camp discussions and evaluations are great methods to ascertain that the goals of camp and the care provided aligned with parental hopes. When parents pick up their child(ren) from camp, they are anxious to hear the stories, learn of newfound friends, and see a change in self-esteem, confidence, and self-worth. The post-camp evaluation can shed light on the elements of camp that allowed social learning and made an impact on future functioning. The post-camp interactions also allow camp professionals to provide clarification, encourage parents regarding child concerns, and plan for future possible camp experiences.
Camps can prepare and be proactive in preparing for routine procedures at camp. However, the potential always exists that unusual situations may arise that require additional contact with parents. Consider the possibility of a mass infectious illness in the camp setting where several children become ill. Parents might call and want to pick up their child; however, outsider exposure to the infectious illness may not be appropriate or allowed. How would the camp manage in the event of a tornado, flooding, or power outage? Communication during these situations, if managed well, can prevent parents from demonstrating ineffective or risky behaviors regarding the event. What would be your facility’s capability and procedure for connecting with parents to provide essential information in a timely manner? Is there an emergency preparedness plan that includes the procedures for contacting parents? All of these questions require consideration if camps want to demonstrate to parents their professional role and ability to care for campers.
There are many key points in communi¬cation between parents and camp professionals that can help create a quality camp experience. A summarization of these elements includes:
- Create a system to help parents provide accurate, timely, and complete application information for camp. Parents who are able to connect the idea that needed information creates more safety for their child are more likely to complete the required elements.
- Identify information the camp can provide to parents prior to applying for camp. Information such as camp site pictures, schedules, staff, food service, and medical care oversight are some elements that can be addressed before the parent sends the child to camp.
- Identify those “challenging” areas for your camp facility. Areas such as technology and parent notification have been highlighted in this article as two pervasive challenges that many camps encounter each year. Develop a plan or policy related to these elements or other areas of concern, and disseminate that information to parents as early as possible.
- Develop a logistical process for who will manage the precamp information sharing, including what information is shared, how it is shared, and how often it is updated so information remains current.
- Identify how communication with parents will be managed while a child is at camp. Who are the key individuals communicating with parents regarding the camper status or change in status during the experience?
- How wil