4 key questions to ask before choosing a program
Published: February 25, 2023
By: Pam Moore
My kids could not have been happier as they splashed in the water, playing with their friends.
I felt like I was going to throw up.
I’d dropped them off at their first day of summer camp that morning, thrilled to have four hours to myself. When I’d enrolled them in the camp run by the gym where I work out and teach group fitness, I asked about the ratio of adults to kids in the pool. They told me it would be two adults with a maximum of 15 kids, plus a lifeguard.
“Isn’t that kind of a low ratio?” I’d asked. The camp was for kids ages 2-and-a-half and up. The pool has an infinity edge that gradually extends to a depth of 3-feet. The camp director, a mom herself, assured me they’d always done it this way and it had been fine. She encouraged me to sit by the pool and watch if I wanted. Perhaps I was being overly protective, I thought. Obviously, the other parents didn’t seem to have a problem with it.
My kids are 3 and 5 years old and neither of them can swim well. Though I pride myself on being a pretty hands-off (ie: lazy) parent, when it comes to water safety, I don’t take chances. On the first day of camp, I sat poolside and watched during swim time. My initial feeling of, “I can’t see how this is going to work” progressed to, “Oh my god this is a total disaster” to, “I don’t know how much longer I can watch before I start hyperventilating.”
There were 13 campers, many of them under 5 years old, two adults, and zero lifeguards. Plus there were kids with their parents who were not attending camp swimming. I could hardly keep my eyes on my own two kids through the sea of people. At times, one camp staffer would take a kid to the restroom, leaving one adult in charge of 12 kids.
I waited for them to blow a whistle and have the kids buddy up like we used to do at summer camp when I was a kid. That never happened. I waited, my eyes darting wildly to keep track of my girls until finally, they took the kids out of the water. At that point, I gathered my things, went to the locker room, sequestered myself in a bathroom stall, and exhaled. Tears of frustration and anxiety spilled out while I choked back a little sob.
Was I overreacting? I didn’t think so. But when I brought my concerns to one of the administrators of the gym, they were brushed off. I was offered only reassurance that the staff was extremely responsible. “I’m sure they are,” I countered. “I just don’t think there are enough of them for all of the kids to be safe in the pool.”
To avoid a similar situation like this, here are some important questions to ask before committing to a camp.
Is the camp ACA-accredited?
To meet the American Camping Association’s (ACA) standards, camps must adhere to minimum staff ratios, which pertain to overall supervision, but not specifically to aquatic supervision. While these ratios vary according to age, requirements change according to whether the children are on land or in the water and is at each camp’s discretion. ACA-accredited day camps require a minimum ratio of 1-to-6 for children ages 5 and under, 1-to-8 for children ages 6-8, and 1-to-10 for children ages 9-14. Ratios are slightly higher for overnight campers: 1-to-5 for children ages 5 and under, 1-to-6 for children 6-8, and 1-to-8 for children ages 9-14. ACA accreditation is completely voluntary, however. If a camp has the credential, they have gone through a rigorous, costly accreditation process, and will typically display proof of certification on their website and/or in their office.
Does the camp have state licensure?
While the ACA accreditation is a valuable credential, it is no replacement for doing your homework. Ensuring that your child’s camp follows state licensing guidelines and provides adequate staff training is just as important as the ACA stamp of approval,
if not more so. Whether or not they’re accredited by the ACA, camps must meet certain minimum standards set by their state. These requirements vary widely from state to state. While some states’ requirements are consistent throughout, in others they are specific to the city or county.
Meanwhile, there are a few states that have adopted the same standards as the ACA. An index of resources for each state compiled by the ACA is available at https://www.acacamps.org/resource-library/state-laws-regulations.
Is the staff well-trained?
One recommendation is for parents to talk directly to camp administrators to find out how they train their staff to manage swim time and make sure they know and adhere to their state’s licensing standards. For example, does staff training include a water safety segment where they go over every aspect of swim time, including face checks and staff presence in the pool?
What are the camp’s swim safety policies?
While the ACA standards dictate that camps must institute a system to quickly account for all campers involved in aquatic activities, it is at the camp’s discretion to decide which system to employ. While there is an app for nearly everything, they still haven’t come up with one to replace the Buddy System, a common water safety check that has not changed much, if at all, since my youth, whereby the lifeguard blows a whistle signaling campers to pair up with a pre-designated swim buddy.
Beyond my casual questions about the swimming situation at my kids’ camp, it never occurred to me to explore my state’s licensing requirements until I witnessed the swim program firsthand. I admit, my main camp selection criteria were convenience and price. After my poolside near-panic attack, though, my concern was safety.
And rightly so, according to experts like Dr. Sanjay Gupta, senior medical correspondent at CNN Health. In an article posted there, he says toddlers are at a relatively huge risk of drowning, even in water as shallow as one inch, due to their top-heavy bodies: “Children 4 and under actually have the single highest drowning death rate according to the National Safety Council.” And according to Alan Steinman, MD, former director of health and safety at the U.S Coast Guard, drowning is a highly inconspicuous event. It happens quietly, without any arm flailing or cries for help.
Though I hated to break my kids’ little hearts, I felt I had no choice but to pull them out of camp. And next time I have to choose a camp, I know what questions I’ll ask ahead of time.