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Until their kids write home, parents of teens on Broadreach’s summer adventure programs probably don’t know about the mandatory toast everyone gives each night before dinner. Though the ritual is small potatoes in the context of the entire experience, it indicates how Broadreach and other summer programs can push participants beyond the envelope of the everyday.

Look beneath the surface of a summer program

Yet, given all the factors to consider when choosing a summer program, most parents don’t look beyond the location, facilities, and activities. However, those fine points add up to one of the most powerful educational experiences a human being can have, contends Rich Gersten, director and owner of Brant Lake Camp in Brant Lake, New York.

Good summer programs encourage kids to learn new things about themselves and to explore unfamiliar activities. As you begin to research programs, you should ask how a program will influence your children now and in the future. It may help with personal development, getting a future summer job, or even college admissions. Of course, this information can be harder to dig up if you only look at brochures or videos. You have to look beneath the surface.

Talk to the people who run the summer youth program

A friend’s advice is helpful, but camp directors are always the best source. It’s perfectly acceptable to quiz counselors about anything and everything. A director should be able to communicate his or her program’s underlying philosophy. When you talk to the faculty of a program, ask:

  • What is your program’s philosophy?
  • What are the unique features of your program?
  • How will my child be challenged by your counselors and activities?
  • How are children motivated to try new things?
  • How are leadership and personal growth fostered?
  • How does your program measure and reward success?
  • What happens when children violate the rules? How do you deal with conflict?

Evaluate the staff of the student summer program

Parents often ask about the ratio of campers to counselors. While that’s a valid question, the maturity and experience of the staff is of utmost importance. “All of us in the business say our staff is the most crucial ingredient. We can have all the facilities in the world, but if relationships are not happening between the counselors and kids, then the facilities take you only so far,” notes Tony Mayfield, director at Culver Summer Camps in Culver, Indiana. When you speak to program directors, you should ask:

  • What is the maturity and experience level of the staff?
  • How long has your staff been with you?
  • Where do most of your counselors come from?
  • How are counselors trained?
  • What is the ratio of counselors to children?

Talk to parents and campers who’ve been to summer programs

Candid opinions from former campers and their parents are also a rich source of information. Chris Yager founded the student summer program Where There Be Dragons, which takes teens on adventure tours to Asia. Yager encourages interested teens to ask previous participants about their experiences. Some kids might be turned off when they find out that they will be pushed beyond their comfort zones. Ask parents of former participants:

  • How did your child grow as a result of participation?
  • How is your child using the experience he or she gained from the program?
  • How did your child respond to the counselors?
  • What didn’t you like about the program?

Visit the summer youth program while it’s in session

There are summer experiences to fit any interest, from classic camps that emphasize sports to niche programs that develop computer skills. The best way to know if a certain experience will fit your child’s personality is to see it in person. When you visit a summer program, you should consider these questions:

  • Do I trust the people who staff this program?
  • Will my child like the activities and do they fit his or her interests?
  • Is this an environment in which my child will thrive?
  • Will the size and location of this camp suit my child?
  • Will the level of regimentation in this program fit my child’s personality?

The first thing Carlton Goldthwaite, founder of Broadreach, does when talking to parents is to ask what their goals are for their child’s personal growth. If the goals don’t match his program, he tells the parents to look elsewhere. “You know from observing your child what environment he or she will thrive in,” says Goldthwaite.