Within the next coupe of weeks, some 10 million American children will start heading off to summer camp.
Whether it's day camp or sleep-away, sports or computers, miles away or around the corner, camp gives kids a fun outlet to learn and grow.
While often these situations are met with hesitation, slight anxiety - or in the case of some first-time campers, homesickness - it is these moments that develop the 21st century skills needed in adulthood.
New situations, such as going away to camp, serve as teachers in life's classroom - developing leadership, self-esteem, teamwork, independence, and problem-solving.
And as parents load their kids on the camp bus or kiss them goodbye at the cabin door this summer, many may quietly worry about entrusting their children's health and safety to camp staff.
Thousands of children are injured each year at camp - some seriously - and a few die. Sports camps and adventure camps are physically demanding.
Fortunately, parents can do a lot to keep their kids safe and healthy at summer camp, University of Michigan experts report.
No matter what kind of camp a child might attend, parents should ask camp organizers the same basic questions about how they keep kids safe, handle medical emergencies, and deal with routine health needs, University of Michigan experts said.
Parents need to ask a lot of questions of the camp staff before camp starts, to make that the camp is able to protect a child's safety.
Thankfully, Michigan is one of the nation's more proactive states for summer camp health, with state laws requiring annual licensing, a dedicated camp health officer, and first-aid training for camp staff.
Experts advise parents to check whether their child's camp is accredited with the American Camping Association, which has even more stringent health requirements than state laws.
As parents prepare to send their kids to camp, experts offer a list of questions to ask:
- What's the camp's philosophy?
- Is it a general camp or a specialized one? How much physical activity do campers have, and what's the potential for injury during those activities? If it's a sports camp, are trainers and coaches prepared to handle sprains, strains, heat stroke and other emergencies?
- Who supervises the children, and what's their age, experience, and first-aid training? Inexperienced or young counselors may not be able to respond as well in an emergency as more experienced ones. Instructors in risky activities - such as horseback riding, swimming, water sports and adventure hiking - should have more training in safety measures and first aid. The majority of the small number of deaths that occur each year at American camps are caused by drowning. That means water safety is very important. Parents should ask about the emergency medical training level of the water training staff.
- What kind of medical staff works at the camp? What are the medical facilities nearby? Ask if the camp has a nurse or person with emergency medical training on site at all times, and how quickly they are available in emergencies. Ask about the nearest hospital and urgent care clinic, and the local ambulance service.
- Ask the camp director how long it takes for an ambulance to get to the camp, and which hospital would someone who is sick or injured be transported to. If a camp has a first aid provider but they're five minutes by ambulance from a major trauma center, it's not as important to have a highly trained provider at the camp as it might be for a camp that's an hour into the wilderness.
- What's the supervision for trips away from camp? Field trips are often an exciting change of pace for campers, but parents should ask about the ratio of chaperones to campers, and the requirements for drivers of vehicles campers ride in.
- How are campers' medications and special dietary needs handled? More children than ever use prescription medications for asthma, behavior and mental health disorders, allergies, diabetes and other conditions. Parents need to ask about medications, and who controls medications. Ask, Who dispenses medications?, What time of day are they given?, What kinds of medications are allowed to be out with the child if necessary?, and What kinds of medications are taken on trips away from camp?
Experts caution parents of children with attention deficit disorder and other behavioral conditions not to see summer camp as a time for their child to take a "medication holiday" and halt their use of drugs like Ritalin. The new experiences and social situations of camp don't mix well with a sudden change in medication.
- Do I need to buy extra health insurance? Will my insurance cover local medical care? Many camps require parents to buy additional insurance coverage for their children, or to provide proof that the child is covered by an existing policy.
- What's the camp's policy about phone calls, and homesickness? Psychological well-being is just as important as physical health. Parents should find out whether their child will be allowed to call home if he or she is feeling homesick. But parents should resist the temptation to retrieve a homesick child from camp immediately; they should talk with counselors first and see if they can address the issue.
A lot can be done to address homesickness before camp even begins - starting with a realistic assessment of whether a child is ready to go to a sleep-away camp. Parents should talk frankly with children in the weeks before they leave about how it's all right to miss home, while emphasizing the fun and new experiences camp will bring.
Facts about summer camp and camping health issues:
- More than 10 million children attend more than 12,000 U.S. camps each summer.
- Approximately 60 percent of camps are overnight camps, 24 percent are day camps, and 16 percent offer both day and overnight programs.