Day camps offering fun, sun and Jewish content near home

Joan DeHovitz still remembers circle time and singing "If I Had a Hammer," making doughnuts, and swimming and hiking at Camp Tovah, a former Jewish summer day camp she attended in Los Altos Hills in the 1970s. But fond memories weren't enough when DeHovitz chose the right camps for her kids. More important for her were such issues as safety, finding the right fit for her children's personalities and the types of activities offered.

"The reputation of the camp is very important. I also need to be comfortable with the people running it and to trust them," said the Kentfield resident. DeHovitz and her husband, Aaron Braun, have four children, ranging in ages from 5-13, one of whom will attend the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center day camp; others have attended in past summers.

"I originally find out about a camp from other moms who sent their kids there previously."

Another way to verify a day camp's reputation is to see if the American Camping Association accredits it. The ACA's seal of approval indicates a camp adheres to certain safety and staffing standards and guidelines, such as mandatory first-aid and CPR training for all staff and proper adult-to-child ratios. ACA recommends ratios of one counselor for every six kindergarteners, one to seven for children ages 6-8, and slightly higher for older campers.

"Parents want to be assured that the health and safety needs of their children are being met," said Karen Cagan, director of summer day camps and youth programming at the Berkeley Richmond JCC, who has more than 20 years of experience in the field. "We also have a low ratio of kids-to-adults because parents need to know that their kids are closely watched."

Beyond safety and staff-to-camper ratios, which are vitally important, the counselors must be nurturing and caring.

"We have a full week of staff training before camp, during which we role-play various camp situations, take safety courses and meet with child development experts from the local Jewish Children and Family Services," explained Todd Braman, co-director of summer day camps for the Peninsula JCC in Belmont. "And they actually spend a night at the camp site." Before camp begins Braman also provides sensitivity training so his staff can learn how to deal with issues such as same-sex parents or a camper's homesickness on an overnight.

Parents should also consider the types of activities offered and the balance between structured and free time, according to Cagan, and how the activities will mesh with their child's personality. Some camps concentrate on building social skills and making lifelong friends, in a traditional day camp that includes arts and crafts, nature, sports and exposure to Jewish culture. Others are specialty camps with a singular focus, such as soccer, cooking, theater or tennis.

Field trips and other enrichment activities are also often part of a camp's repertoire, and Braman says parents need to know if they are age-appropriate and if their child is prepared for them. "For example, is your camper ready for an overnight? How does he or she deal with being away from home?"

Activities alone do not make a successful and healthy summer day camp. "Parents need to know what are the camp's goals," Braman said, "and how it helps children accomplish grand things, not just having fun, but getting in touch with their strengths and learning their roles in the world around them."

Some parents prefer camps that offer opportunities for children of various ages at one site. "I call this one-stop shopping," said Wendy Lapides of the OMJCC, which has day-camp programs for children ages 2 to 15. "We provide day care for very young children, a counselor-in-training program and overnights for the older kids." As a result, parents with multiple children don't have to grapple with driving around.

Lapides also said that affordability, especially in these rough economic times, has become a key issue for many parents. Most area summer day camps range in prices from $150 to $250 per week, and some offer discounts for siblings.

One of the most important considerations from a child's perspective, however, might be the snacks. "We try to have a mix between nutritious food and letting the kids have input," reasoned Cagan, who said the preferred snack at her camps has been the root beer float.

DeHovitz extols the virtues of day camps that treat each of her children individually. "Day camps are truly wonderful," she said, recalling the time when a Camp Tovah school bus picked her up and dropped her off a block from her Palo Alto home. "There's a sense of being free to have fun with kids your own age. It's fun to enjoy the summer months with friends and then go home and share it with your parents."

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.