For generations, the family was known throughout the area as masters of making the most amazing fudge. Taking days to prepare, fudge making was an event — and those lucky enough to receive some would savor it as long as they could. The fudge recipe was a heavily guarded family secret, traditionally passed down to just one relative in the next generation. The grandmother had been the last maker. When it was time to pass the torch, she brought the next family member in line to her kitchen for instruction and ceremoniously gave them the recipe.

When the next fudge-making season rolled around, the new maker began the process. However, despite diligently following every step of the written recipe, time after time, they were never able to get the fudge to come out right. After several failed attempts, they called the grandmother and explained the plight. The grandmother responded by sharing a myriad of information missing from the written recipe, details that turned out to be critical for successfully reaching fudge nirvana. The subtle culinary methods required included such details as using only a wooden spoon when stirring the fudge and driving directions to the one-and-only dairy where the cream with the correct fat ratio had to be purchased.

Had the fudge-maker known about the additional essentials prior to trying to make the fudge the first time, they probably would have succeeded. However, while the basic measurements and list of ingredients were provided in the written recipe, it was the unwritten and assumed details (“Everyone knows you don’t stir fudge with a metal spoon!”) that were critical to success. Without that additional information, they (and their fudge) were set up to fail.

What Ingredients Are Needed for Success at Your Camp?

Just as in making fudge, there is a recipe of critical ingredients that are essential for a child to succeed at camp. However, camps often unintentionally undermine that outcome because they have not provided the essential criteria required for success. While the basic measurements — being a certain age, having completed a certain grade in school, having an interest in this or that activity, etc. — are in the camp’s written materials, it is often the unmentioned or assumed “ingredients” (“Everyone knows you do/don’t do  at camp!”) that are critical to success. When camps fail to communicate the essential eligibility criteria (EEC) required for participation to parents/guardians prior to enrollment, they are setting up campers for failure.

The purpose of essential eligibility criteria is to establish whether or not an individual can participate in an activity based on their ability to perform the basic functions of the activity. The goal of essential eligibility criteria is to give the camp and the potential participant (and their parents) the information needed to make an accurate, objective assessment when deciding if the individual’s abilities are a good fit for that activity. EEC requirements are not intended to be exclusionary, but to honestly identify the basic and fundamental elements of participation integrally tied to safety and risk management considerations. EECs should not be seen as blocks to participation, but rather as a tool to help ensure the prospective camper has the fundamental skills required to be successful in your specific camp/program.

The concept of essential eligibility criteria is something many camps already apply in determining which potential campers are likely to successfully participate in their programs. Camps typically address physical and cognitive abilities as well as medical health. While these areas of consideration remain important, the new challenge for camps is to think beyond critical physical and cognitive abilities to also include EECs for mental, emotional, and social health (MESH).

MESH: Adding New Ingredients

This information won’t come as a surprise to health providers, counselors, clinicians, teachers, or camp directors who’ve seen a rise in depression, anxiety, and related incidents firsthand. The number of kids and young adults struggling with MESH issues is staggering. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than three million adolescents aged 12–17 reported at least one major depressive episode in the past year, and more than two million reported severe depression that impeded their daily functioning (Schrobsdorff, 2016). According to research presented at the 2017 Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting, the number of children and adolescents admitted to children’s hospitals for thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than doubled during the last decade (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2017).

According to a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, more than half of the college students who visited their campus counseling centers during the 2015–16 academic year reported symptoms of anxiety (Tate, 2017)).

The list goes on.

The Challenge to Camps Is What Can You Really Handle?

Remember that families without camp experience are on the outside looking in. Odds are they are unfamiliar with the camp industry’s casual use of the term “counselor” — especially when paired with “highly trained” and “qualified” in the camp’s marketing materials. Internally, we collectively understand “counselor” in reference to those seasonally hired teens and college students who, after attending one whole week of training, are now caring for other people’s children. However, outside of the camp-bubble, “counselor” is a significant professional title earned through years of training, education, and specific certification requirements. As a result, parents of youth with mental, emotional, and social health issues may interpret what you do, who your serve, and your capacity to provide mental health care very differently than you do. Including essential eligibility criteria on your website, in marketing materials, etc., can help your camp clarify what (if any) role your camp does, can, will, and won’t provide in terms of MESH care services prior to a camper’s enrollment.

EEC Benefits to Camps

Employing essential eligibility criteria at your camp brings several benefits:

  • Reduction of campers arriving with medical, physical, or MESH issues that your camp is unprepared for or truly unable to handle.
  • Improved communication with parents of prospective campers prior to enrollment.
  • If, after communicating with the parents and assessing the child’s ability to participate, your camp elects to accept a camper, you have an opportunity to be better prepared by bringing in additional support or resources, adding additional staff training, etc.

Additionally, having EECs in place and communicating participation requirements before campers are enrolled may offer some financial and/or legal protection for the camp when a parent fails to inform the camp of a child’s issues, when a child has to be sent home as a result, or if a mental or medical health emergency occurs. (Camps should consult with their legal and insurance professionals for guidance.)

EEC should be posted on the camp’s/program’s website as part of the program descriptions, as well as be included as part of the registration materials signed by the parent/participant. Camps may wish to consider requiring parents to acknowledge that they have read and are willing to comply with the camp’s EEC before being permitted to enroll their child. Many programs now include an EEC acknowledgment button on their online registration system that must be “accepted” in order to get to the registration page.

As part of the acceptance decision-making process, also consider including the child’s mental health care provider, when there is one. Youth who are currently in the care of a mental health professional can be required (or encouraged) to consult with their care provider to get an opinion regarding whether they are indeed ready and able to successfully attend camp.

EEC Language Examples

  • ABC Camp is not a rehabilitative or therapeutic program and does not specialize in serving those with special needs, including mental, emotional, social, or behavioral difficulties.
  • XYZ Camp is not a therapeutic program and is not an appropriate choice for youth dealing with behavioral, motivational, or rehabilitation issues.
  • Safe participation in  requires certain physical, mental, emotional, and social health abilities, and we are therefore limited in the types of accommodations we are able to provide.
  • It is our desire to partner with parents and to work together to determine if the  Camp program will be a positive experience and is suitable for your child prior to their enrollment.
  • As each child’s ability to participate is unique, decisions to accept a participant are made on an individual basis. As such, we request that parents contact the camp prior to enrolling their child.
  • Participants must be in good health, physically and emotionally, and have the ability to participate as part of a supportive community in a socially healthy way.
  • Participants must be in good mental, emotional, and social health and be able to function in a group setting in a positive and cooperative manner that displays tolerance and respect for self and others.
  • Participants must be able to interact responsibly in a group and work together as part of a team.
  • Participants should have the emotional maturity to handle the sleep-away-from-home aspects of the camp program, including living independently in a group setting and taking care of their own personal needs.
  • Participants must be able and willing to follow all instructions and refrain from behaviors that pose a risk to self or others.
  • Participants are expected to contribute to a safe learning environment, using respectful language and appropriate physical behavior.


American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017, May 4). Children’s hospitals admissions for suicidal thoughts, actions double during past decade. AAP News. Retrieved from

Schrobsdorff, S. (2016, November 16). There’s a startling increase in major depression among teens in the U.S. TIME. Retrieved from

Tate, E. (2017, March 29) Anxiety on the rise. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, MA Ed, has over 25 years of professional experience working within the camp, youth development, and education fields with for-profit and nonprofit camps and organizations. Diane is the owner and director of Chef Camp, a residential culinary immersion program for teens, and CEO of Frog Pond Consulting, providing integrated solutions to help meet ever-changing marketplace challenges for universities, private schools, camps, recreational facilities, and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at