Keeping Kids Safe at Summer Camp

Reviewed by Dominique Walton, MD on May 07, 2001

From nature walks to cookouts to sing-a-longs -- camp has many fun and exciting things to offer kids freed from school and homework during the long, hot summer months.

But before packing your child off to camp, you should get to know what medical and safety services are available -- or not, as the case may be.

For starters, according to recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, a good camp will have written health policies and protocols. And all children attending the camp should be required to have had a complete exam by a doctor in the past year and be up-to-date on all childhood shots.

Before camp starts, parents should make sure the leaders have a detailed health history of their child, including any significant illnesses, operations, injuries, allergies, and any current medical problems.

"A lot of camps have a nurse or other medical person on-site. That would be an important question to ask when looking at camps -- what kind of medical support do they have, and is there a place where kids can go if they don't feel well," says Garry Gardner, MD, a pediatrician in private practice in Darien, Ill., and a member of the academy's national panel on injury and poison prevention.

"Most camps, I would think, would have first-aid supplies on the premises -- but that's a valid question as well. How do they stock the first-aid or the medical office or clinic?"

And not every problem is a physical illness or injury -- you also might want to know how the camp handles outbreaks of homesickness.

Eight out of 10 campers report being homesick at least one day at camp, according to American Camping Association statistics. The good news: Less than 10% of those cases are so serious -- the child becomes so anxious or depressed that he stops eating or sleeping -- that they are sent home.

What, Exactly, Will Your Kid Be Doing?

Gardner says parents should also ask questions about activities available at a potential camp. If your child will be involved in boating, swimming, or other water sports, for example, you'll want to know about such things as life jackets, supervision, and the CPR certification of instructors.

Another reason to ask about activities: if your child has specific allergies.

For instance, parents of children with allergies to horses will want to know if campers will be taken horseback riding or exposed to horses on nature walks. If necessary, parents should send along Benadryl or Epi-pens for children who could suffer a serious attack if exposed to a known allergen, such as a bee sting, Gardner says.

Some camps may provide these things, but it can't hurt to send your own supplies just in case.

While parents probably will not be told about every cut, scrape, or bruise their child gets at camp, they will want to familiarize themselves with the procedure in place to deal with a serious situation, such as a broken bone or an illness. This is particularly important for parents whose children attend camps far from home.

"We do have a release statement that allows us to seek emergency medical treatment while we are making efforts to contact the parent," says Cathy Robillard, executive director of City Kids Camp in Jackson Hole, WY, a summer camp for financially challenged youth from Washington, D.C.

"If we are unable to find a parent or one of the emergency contacts listed on the form, we proceed with whatever medical care is needed for that child and continue to try to reach the parents," Robillard says.

Some camps have a high risk of injury because of the nature of the activities provided.

Sara Seeman's 17-year-old daughter has been attending annual gymnastics camps at Woodward Camp in Pennsylvania since she was 9. The sports camp also features extreme skateboarding, in-line skating, and freestyle BMX biking.

Seeman, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., says knowing that full-time nurses are on staff at the camp gives her peace of mind, especially since she is a four-hour drive away.

"There is a lot of room for injury in a gymnastics camp. But they tell you in the brochures they send what the nearest hospital is, how far away it is, what town it's in, etc.," she says. "She's never been ill so I honestly never gave it too much thought, other than emergency care she might need if she broke an arm or a leg."

But Seeman, whose daughter is recovering from a recent bout of meningitis, says this recent health scare made her stop taking her child's previously good health for granted.

What's the Prescription for Handling Medications?

Parents who must send medication to camp with their child should know who supervises such things and what the rules are regarding over-the-counter drugs. Robillard says her camp discourages parents from sending nonprescription medications -- but if children do bring these, they must be handed over and taken under supervision.

"It's a good policy," says Gardner. "But some parents will tell the child, 'They might not let you have a Tylenol when you need it, so hide these when you get there.' It's best if the people at the camp know of anything the child has with them, be it allergy medication, pain relievers, or vitamins."

As long as the staff is aware of what the child has with them, he says, parents should feel free to send any nonprescription medications the child might need during their stay at camp.

It's also worth checking out whether the camp has a policy on other items you might want to send to camp with your kids, such as bug spray, sunscreen, and calamine lotion for poison ivy.

More Food for Thought

Another concern for some parents is what their child will eat at camp.

Gardner says any food allergies -- or anything the parent does not want the child to eat, for religious or other reasons -- should be clearly communicated to the camp staff. For instance, if a child must avoid sweets because of diabetes or a weight problem, the parents should make sure the camp can handle those requests.

The American Camping Association also advises parents to ask about the type of transportation used at the camp (vans, buses, etc.) and how often those vehicles are inspected by qualified mechanics.

Finally, if you think about it long enough, you can probably come up with dozens of different things that could happen to your child while he or she is away at camp. But Gardner says if you do your homework and feel confident with the level of experience and training of the camp staff, you will be much more likely to relax and let your child enjoy the summer vacation.

"Camp is a wonderful experience," he says. "It's great for kids, and they need some slack in the summer."

But Is Your Child Ready for Camp?

Just because a child is old enough to go away to summer camp doesn't necessarily mean he or she is emotionally ready for it. To ensure that the experience is healthy for both children and parents, the YMCA provides the following tips for parents trying to determine when and if their child is ready for camp:

  • Have they asked if they can go away to camp? Most kids are ready for overnight camp if they hear friends talking about it and eagerly ask a parent if they can go, too. Typically, even though friends are going, if a child isn't ready, he or she won't bring it up.
  • Have they had other overnight experiences away from home, without a family member present? If so, how did it go? Were they anxious? Did you have to pick them up before the activity was over?
  • Do they appear uncomfortable or nervous in large public restrooms at shopping malls or sports venues? This can pose a problem at resident camps where group bathroom and shower facilities are the norm.
  • Do they feel pressured because an older brother or sister is going to camp and they don't want to "feel like a baby"? Younger siblings should go when they're ready.

For more advice and helpful tips about summer camp, parents can call (800) 428-CAMP to request a free copy of the American Camping Association's "Summer Camp Answer Book."