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How to Choose a Camp — Safety Tips
ACA Accreditation assures parents that the camp has had a regular, independent safety audit that goes beyond regulations in most states.
Accreditation is different than licensing.
- Licensing, with surprise inspections, focuses on enforcement of minimum regulations - often in just sanitation and food service. Accreditation, with scheduled visits, focuses on education - supporting best practices in all aspects of camp operation
- Licensing varies significantly from state to state. Accreditation standards and processes are nationally developed, tested, and accepted, both by camp professionals and legal/regulatory authorities
- Licensing is required and imposed. Accreditation is voluntary. Camps that are accredited have demonstrated their commitment to providing safe and nurturing environments for children
To achieve accreditation, camps must demonstrate compliance with any mandatory standards applicable to their specific programs, as well as substantial compliance with an additional body of standards in ten operational areas that specifically address the delivery of a quality camp program.
- Five operational management areas such as facilities and staffing
- Five program areas such as aquatics and trips
No accreditation process, no licensing program, no set of regulations or laws can guarantee safety. However, accreditation is the best evidence for parents that a camp is committed to providing a safe and nurturing environment for their children.
Accreditation helps parents select camps that meet government-recognized best practices.
Parents can (and should) verify the accreditation status of any camp at any time. This may be accomplished through ACA's Web site at www.ACAcamps.org or by calling 1-800-428-CAMP.
What does it mean?
The American Camp Association is the advocate for the accredited-camp experience. ACA Standards are continually revised and updated to reflect the needs of camps, the public, and the changing body of laws and regulations. The main purpose of the ACA-accreditation program is to educate camp owners and directors in the administration of key aspects of camp operation, particularly those related to program quality and the health and safety of campers and staff. The second purpose of ACA accreditation is to assist the public in selecting camps that meet industry-accepted and government-recognized standards.
Although many state and federal laws and regulations address basic sanitation and food service concerns, the ACA Standards go a step further in addressing the specific areas of programming, personnel, health care, and management practices. Separate standards are applied to activities such as aquatics, horseback riding, adventure challenge activities, and travel and trip programs.
ACA accreditation is the best evidence parents have of a camp's commitment to a safe and nurturing environment for their children. This voluntary accreditation assures parents that camp practices have been measured against national standards and go a step beyond a state's basic licensing requirements. Accreditation is based on a commitment by the camp to best practices.
ACA standards are recognized by courts of law and government regulators as the standards of the camp industry. The ACA accreditation program has a 50-year history and is continually evaluated and updated to reflect current best practice in camps. ACA collaborates with experts from many fields such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Red Cross, and other youth-serving agencies to be sure required practices are current and sound. ACA standards are revised based on research in the public, legal, youth development, and camp arenas.
No environment is risk free. However, ACA camps voluntarily go through a rigorous risk management process to prevent illness or injury to campers-and to have solid crisis plans if an emergency does occur. Camp provides a supervised, positive environment with controlled boundaries to help children grow.
At least once every three years, an outside team of trained professionals observe the camp in session to verify compliance with applicable standards. The ACA has developed up to 300 standards that cover the various aspects of camp operations in ten specific areas.
- Site/Food Service: Fire protection, maintenance, sleeping areas, bathing/toilet facilities, food service areas and practices
- Transportation: Driver and vehicle requirements, traffic control, transportation safety
- Health Care: Staff and facility requirements, medication management, required health information and recordkeeping
- Management: Safety and security regulations, staff emergency training, crisis communications, insurance, planning
- Staffing: Staff qualifications, training, ratios, supervision and behavior management guidelines
- Program: Goals for camper development, orientation and safety policies for general and specialized programs, including aquatics, challenge courses, trips and horseback riding
Few fields combine such a variety of backgrounds and disciplines, as does organized camping. Camp directors are required to have expertise in very technical fields such as nutrition, food service, facility design and maintenance, risk management, marketing, personnel and business management. Being a camp professional also necessitates the blending of the principles of social group work, recreation, child development, physical education, health and wellness, psychology, and education. Camping provides the unique opportunity to integrate these disciplines by working with people in a stimulating outdoor setting.
When you receive a camp's brochure, you will invariably have questions for the camp director. From that first phone call or letter, you begin developing an impression of what a particular camp is like and how it is run. A camp may be described in nothing less than glowing terms in its brochure. The setting may be absolutely breathtaking. Activities may run the gamut from racquetball to modern dance. In the end, however, it's the human equation of how those activities are operated and conducted that determines the quality of the camp program. Get to know the camp director as a person through telephone conversations, correspondence, and a personal visit. Have the director describe the camp's philosophy and how the staff implements it.
What is the camp's philosophy and program emphasis?
Each camp has its own method of constructing programs based on its philosophy. Does it complement your own parenting philosophy? Many camps actively promote competition and healthy rivalry among camp teams, as reflected in team sports. For many campers this is pure fun. Some parents feel that learning to be competitive at an early age teaches essential survival skills. However, other parents and educators are in favor of cooperative learning. Knowing your child's personality and style of learning is valuable in selecting the right camp.
What is the camp director's background?
ACA minimum standards recommend directors possess a bachelor's degree, have completed in-service training within the past three years, and have at least 16 weeks of camp administrative experience before assuming the responsibilities of director.
What training do counselors receive?
At a minimum, camp staff should be trained in safety regulations, emergency procedures and communication, behavior management techniques, child abuse prevention, appropriate staff and camper behavior, and specific procedures for supervision.
What is the counselor-to-camper ratio?
ACA standards require different ratios for varying ages and special needs. Generally, the ratios at resident camps range from: One staff member for every five campers ages 4 and 5; one staff member for every six campers ages 6 to 8; one staff member for every eight campers ages 9 to 14; and one staff member for every 10 campers ages 15 to 17. At day camps the ratios range from: one staff member for every six campers ages 4 and 5; eight campers ages 6 to 8; one staff member for every 10 campers ages 9 to 14; and one staff member for every 12 campers ages 15 to 17.
What are the ages of the counselors?
ACA standards recommend that 80 percent or more of the counseling/program staff be at least 18 years old. Staff must be at least 16 years old and be at least two years older than the campers with whom they work. In special needs camps, 100 percent of the counseling/program staff must be at least 18 years old.
What are desired qualities in camp staff?
The same qualities of trustworthiness and dependability sought by any employer are valued commodities in camp employees. Also, the ability to adapt to a variety of situations, empathy for and ability to work with camp clientele, a strong self-image and an outgoing personality are important characteristics for camp staff.
What percentage of the counselors returned from last year?
Most camps have from 40-60 percent returning staff. If the rate is lower, find out why.
How are behavioral and disciplinary problems handled?
This is where the director's philosophy comes through loud and clear. Positive reinforcement, assertive role modeling and a sense of fair play are generally regarded as key components of camp counseling and leadership. Rules are necessary in any organization and the disciplinary approach taken should be reasonable and well communicated. If penalties are involved for violations, they should be applied quickly, fairly, calmly, and without undue criticism to campers.
How does the camp handle special needs?
If your child has special requirements, ask the camp director about needed provisions and facilities. Is there a nurse on staff? Do they have a designated place to store insulin or allergy medicine? Are special foods available for campers with restricted diets? Every question and each answer is important.
How does the camp handle homesickness and other adjustment issues?
Again, the camp's philosophy on helping children adjust is important. Be sure you are comfortable with the camp's guidelines on parent/child contact.
What about references?
This is generally one of the best ways to check a camp's reputation and service record. Directors should be happy to provide references.
Does the American Camp Association accredit the camp?
It is only logical that members of your family attend an ACA-accredited camp. Accreditation visitors ask the questions -- up to 300 of them -- regarding essential health, safety, and program quality issues important to a camp's overall operation. This does not guarantee a risk-free environment, but it's some of the best evidence parents have of a camp's commitment to a safe and nurturing environment for their children.
- Standards at a Glance (PDF)