How to Pick a Good Arts-Based Summer Camp for your Kids

-Brett Christopher

March has moved on which means that parents of school-aged children are furiously planning their kids’ summer itinerary. If you’re like me, finding a summer camp, even for a week or two, can be a beacon of light in the long tunnel of ‘family togetherness’. And, as Easter weekend comes and goes, the playground parents are making you feel more and more like you’re going to miss the boat on a great opportunity for your kids. In a panic, you careen home, pull out the laptop and start Googling…
But where should you look? And, if your child has never attended the camp, how can you judge whether it is the right fit? DON’T WORRY. Even in smaller communities, there are LOTS of options and most will have a spot for you to fill. Below are a few guidelines to follow when scouring the camp scene – this is intended for arts-based day camps (music, dance, drama, visual art, etc.) but most suggestions can transfer easily to sports-based or other camp options.

A good camp begins and ends with strong staff. Luckily, this is also one of the easiest deficiencies to spot. Before signing up for any program, I urge you to contact the camp and find out how they pick their staff, who they are, and even how much they are paid. Is the camp led by high school students doing their requisite volunteer hours? University students looking to hang around the city for the summer? Request resumes from the administrator of the camp – are the counsellors educated in the field, practicing artists themselves, do they have previous experience managing kids in the age range? Do they up-to-date police checks (CPIC)? Is any of the on-site staff formally trained in first aid?  At the primary/junior level, it isn’t actually necessary that staff have ‘professional’ experience in the art form. Remember they aren’t teaching your child to be Picasso, they’re just engendering some excitement for the art form. The best counsellor will have equal parts enthusiasm for your kid’s enjoyment, the artistic practice, and, of course, for safety.

This is another easy one to spot – the camp should have clear policies around the health and safety of your child. As the caregivers of your child, they MUST respect the importance of the gift that you are bestowing on them when you trust them to look after little Jenny. If you ask to see their policies around things like: missing child, allergies, injuries, off-site visits (if they go to the park/pool as part of their program), other emergencies, and they balk – WALK AWAY. When I have asked this question, I have heard “We’ve never had a problem up till now – so I can assure you, (my child) will be fine.” Bye bye.

This one will get me in hot water but I’ll say it anyway: the intention of arts-based education for children is NOT to subsidize an arts organization’s ‘core’ activities. Many arts groups or edifices will use your precious dollars to fund their other programming. This is a major red flag. It means that your little Jenny is basically an afterthought in the mandate of that organization and you are just a glorified donor. Ask if the organization has a specific mandate for their educational component. Good camps will be run by companies that see arts education as an integral part of their artistic process. Don’t be afraid to ask for a curriculum – part of the fee that you are paying is for the artistic component of the camp – this is not just babysitting.

The goal of an arts-based camp is to teach and foster of love of creation, art, and self. It is not to rehearse a show. This is my own pet peeve – at drama camps, kids are thrust into ‘roles’ and in 4 days, the entire curriculum is built on the performance at the end of the week FOR YOU. Sure, the kids like putting on a costume, you love filming little Jenny as she cackles through her performance of Ursula in The Little Mermaid, but what did she learn? Nothing. Like bad art, the experience will fade before your car pulls into the driveway, and the opportunity to light a fire in her will have been wasted.


Disney has perfected the “Exit through the gift shop” strategy of upselling and many arts camps are guilty of this as well. You’ll be asked to pay a flat fee for the week…then comes the camp t-shirt, the group photo, hot lunch, the tickets to the final ‘show’, and, of course, the $25 DVD of that show. Stop. Transparency of costs is an easy way to decipher whether your camp is focused on the kids or on the cash. Ask, in advance, “What will be asked to contribute financially?” because, we all know that when, with trembling lip, Jenny looks to you to purchase that DVD…well, good luck to you.

You’ve done it! You’ve signed up Jenny to arts camp and it’s the first day. What should you expect upon arrival? And what are the hints about the week(s) to come?

1. Is there a sign in/ sign out table when you arrive? This is a clear indicator of a camp’s interest in safety especially for younger children.

2. Are the counsellors sitting waiting with the kids for everyone to arrive? Uh-oh. Good staff will have join-in activities/games planned for 15 minutes prior to the planned start time to 15 minutes afterwards. It is a great way to transition kids away from parents and a really nice way to launch the week. It is also a clear indicator whether staff have ‘pocket’ games at the ready in case their some unforeseen downtime in their curriculum or are in need of a midday diversion.

3. Staff should never have drinks/food with them when you arrive. They are setting an immediate example for the kids of their expectations (snack is at 10:30am, lunch is at 12, etc) and should be living by the guidelines that they have set. Their entire focus must be on the kids so that the kids feel safe and supported when making the first-day transition. They can ‘hang out’ together after work.

4. FEEL FREE TO HANG AROUND. I’ve never understood camps that insist that parents leave immediately. You have purchased this opportunity for your child and you have the right to make sure that you’re getting what you paid for. You’ll know pretty quickly whether they have their act together. And you’ll feel so much more ease when you walk…out…that…door.

Brett Christopher is the Artistic Producer of Theatre Kingston and has worked in camping for over 15 years. He is the father of two daughters, 7 and 9 years old, who will be attending camps this summer.

Originally posted on Theatre Kingston's blog.