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Summer Safety and Camp Basics for Kids with Dr. Melanie Wilson-Taylor

A pediatrician shares tips on how to keep your kids safe while having fun this summer.

This week, Faith talks to pediatrician Dr. Melanie Wilson-Taylor from NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine about how to prepare your children for the summer. They cover everything from sunscreen to water safety to keeping up with academic skills. Whether your kid is going to sleep away camp or day camp, Dr. Wilson-Taylor shares tips to keep them safe and having fun all summer long.

Episode Transcript

Faith: Welcome to Health Matters, your weekly dose of the latest in health and wellness from NewYork-Presbyterian. I’m Faith Salie.

Summer is here and that means it’s the official start of all sorts of fun activities for kids. So how can parents and caregivers ensure that their kids stay safe, whether it’s playing outside, in the water, or hanging out around a campfire?

This week, Dr. Melanie Wilson-Taylor joined me to share some simple summer safety tips from sunscreen, to tick checks, to water safety. She also shares ways to prepare your kids who are heading away for sleepaway camp and how to keep them engaged with reading and writing to prevent the summer slide. 

Faith: Dr. Melanie Wilson-Taylor, thank you so much for joining us on the podcast.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Hi! How are you, Faith? Good to hang out with you today.

Faith: So as you well know, summer is upon us, and I know a lot of parents are getting their kids ready for camp or just fun activities outside. So we would love to go over some health and safety tips for parents and caregivers who are preparing kids for fun in the sun and certainly some rain days too. We all increasingly know that sun protection is so important. So what do you recommend for kids who are largely away from parents or caregivers all day?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So I definitely think that part of it is just engaging the kid, right? Everything has to be fun. If things are boring, if they feel like a chore, they’re less likely to do it. Before you send them out the door, apply that first layer, right? Cause that starts your day, and at least gives you a couple of hours of protection. I would ask the camps, right, what is your policy about sunscreen? How do you do it? And then do they take breaks? So most places, every couple of hours, they will set a break, whether it’s before the pool or before the next activity, they will apply. So it is important to kind of have that culture of skincare, and to making sure that the camp is thinking about that.

Faith: What are some of the easiest sunscreen applications for kids to do themselves?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: I will tell you, my kids don’t necessarily like the creams as much. There are a lot of sprays that can be used.

Faith: It also feels good because it’s cool.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Yes, it’s cool. It is cool. And you know, my kids are darker, and so sometimes the coloring that shows up, they feel a little uncomfortable. So they do have some that are a little bit more natural, it rubs in a little bit easier. So I think those are things to consider and think about.

The other component is when you’re doing the spray though, they have to know not to spray it in their face. So that’s the one thing that kids can sometimes get in trouble with. So they should spray it on their hands, then they can wipe their face afterwards and then that can apply the sunscreen, making sure they get the bridge of the nose, the tips of their ears is another good one. So just teaching them how to do it and to apply it appropriately, so that way they can protect their skin.

Faith: So, when I think of summer, I of course think of swimming and pools and lakes. And as a parent, it can sometimes be nerve wracking to imagine your kids swimming without your own supervision or perhaps without specific constant supervision. So what are some swimming safety tips that you’d recommend?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So you actually hit the nail on the head, like supervision, supervision, supervision. It is so, so important to have somebody who is comfortable in the water, has skills for life saving efforts if needed, and also just being mindful of where the children are. I will say sometimes you have, either a very large pool, there’s a party, and oftentimes there’s many people watching and nobody’s actually watching. I don’t want to, like, stress with the statistics and things like that, but, you know, we’re having over 10 fatalities of drowning every year in this country, and twice as many that are non fatal, but still drownings nonetheless, and can cause complications.

So I think supervision is certainly important if you’re sending your children off to another location. So let’s say you send them to a friend’s house for a pool party, asking those questions, who’s supervising the children.

Faith: Be that parent, right?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Yes. Exactly. Like I, I’m always that parent just because I’d rather be the one watching than the one not watching. You want to make sure that there’s somebody designated, whether it’s every hour, you’re switching to a different parent.

If they’re at camp, obviously they should have lifeguards, they should have supervision. For older teenagers, they obviously shouldn’t have alcohol involved. And obviously it’s, you’re not allowed to drink, but we do know that teenagers will take that risk and so you want to make sure that they don’t have access to alcohol, they’re not swimming in, you know, the ocean and things like that and pools without supervision.

Faith: So for folks with really young children, how early do you recommend starting swimming lessons if, if they live around water or are going to visit water?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So we always know that having swimming lessons can be helpful. And even for young babies less than a year, they have classes that will teach them to be comfortable in the water, so they’re not panicking. There are some classes that will help teach them how to, like, flip over so they actually go on their back and they can stay that way for a long period of time. And as early as you feel comfortable letting them in the water, the better. They can adapt pretty quickly when they’re much younger. In general, we do know that other techniques are more important for safety, like supervision, having gates around a pool, like especially like a home pool, so that kids aren’t accidentally going into the pool, especially for young kids. That’s the concern. So those are all definitely important safety measures that we want to consider as well.

Faith: OK, well, we’re still on the topic of water. Let’s talk shared showers and bathrooms at camps, right? And, and you know where I’m heading, like maybe foot fungus? Do you recommend that kids wear flip flops in bathrooms and showers in any kind of communal situation?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Yeah, I do recommend a shared, like if you’re going to be in a shared space to have your flip flops, obviously making sure they’re not slippery because that’s something that I have seen. You shouldn’t be running in them. But for the purposes of foot protection, absolutely. 

Faith: Dr. Wilson-Taylor, we’ve talked about water in the summer, but there’s also an element of fire. We’ve got campfires, we’ve got grills, fireworks, can you talk about safety around those things?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So I definitely want to make sure that when we think about kids and fire that you’re always thinking again, supervision, supervision, supervision. But I do think that one component, even when you’re having like a grill, oftentimes we’re throwing the hot coals onto a space. And I’ve definitely seen burns where little kids will run across the coals. So you definitely want to be careful of that. Obviously that the campfires are contained, so we want to make sure you’re not adding extra debris, that those things are well supervised. I think those are some of the big things to keep in mind.

Faith: OK, Dr. Wilson-Taylor, ticks.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Ah, great.

Faith: Ticks. How do we help kids know what to do when it comes to ticks? Because we can’t be all over them all the time.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So I think again, we always go back to prevention. So we think about if you’re going to be in a wooded area, grassy area, even some of the beaches have like tall brush, depending on where you are, you know, upstate, Long Island. I’m just thinking of like New York area, but certainly there’s plenty of places. You do want to think about long sleeve clothing. You want to think about pants, high socks.  I would also recommend an insect repellent.

Faith: Is DEET safe?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So it actually is safer than you think. The younger the children are, we think a little bit more about just skin covering more than the insect repellent. But it can be used, absolutely. It’s always a risk-benefit, right? Like what is the likelihood of contracting, Lyme disease or tick borne illness compared to a temporary concern. 

Tick checks are a part of that. So when I sent my son to camp I said, “By the way, you’re gonna have to do tick checks.” And usually like the camps are really good about that every night before going to bed, everybody does a tick check, you’re checking each other’s backs, cause they can hide. And this is not to sound alarmist at all, but we, you know, we do get cases in New York where people are like, “Oh, I’ve been at Prospect Park, Central Park.” It’s not as often, but it’s certainly something that we see. So don’t discount that exposure as well because we do have wildlife in the city, and they can bring ticks into the space. 

Faith: So again, be that parent. Hey, do you all do tick checks in this cabin or at the end of the day? Yeah. So as adults, we tend to look back on summer camp experiences with the nostalgia filter. But, you know, for a lot of kids being away from home can feel kind of scary. So what would you suggest for parents whose children might be nervous about going to camp?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So, you know, you have like day camps and sleepaway camps. I think if camp options are available and you can do a day camp or tour the site ahead of time, that can help to really relieve some of the stress for the children. Most camps, they limit the amount of cell phones, but you know, I think even talking with young kids about writing a letter home, if they do have some kind of communal time in many places will allow for them to do, you know, either a nightly call or a weekly call.

Most children, they’re afraid of the unknown. And so the more information you can give them about the fun that they’re going to have, about how often you’ll be able to communicate with them, I think oftentimes can help relay some of those fears.

Faith: And you know, nowadays many camps have a kind of app for parents where you can send them what’s called a bunk note electronically. Like you can write them an email and you can put photos on it and it gets delivered every single day to them.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: That’s really cool.

Faith: Do you think it helps for kids to be involved in, in choosing the camp they go to and, and choosing for how long they will be away?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: I mean, I think anytime you give children a choice, it helps empower them. 

Faith: And I think it’s worth noting that there is a measure of privilege in being able to choose the camp because camps can be really expensive for folks. These are not always easy things for families to achieve.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Absolutely. But I will tell you that there are a lot of low-cost options through the city. And they actually do have even sleepaway camps that are available for relatively low costs compared to some of the other pricier ones. So I do think it is worth going on like the parks department, the New York City government pages. There are different ones that they’ll take them throughout the city. 

Faith: And also don’t hesitate to ask for financial aid.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Yeah, Oh, absolutely. And many places do have like donations and money set aside, so oftentimes they can take kids on a sliding scale.

Faith: How would you encourage a more introverted kid, maybe somebody who feels shy, to find friends?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So good camps, honestly, like they embed different activities even for kids who are a little quieter, more introverted. And they usually have different types of activities. Whether maybe running, rowing, you know, like kayaking, things that don’t require like big groups of people to participate all at the same time. But again, knowing what your child is like, I think it’s really helpful. Many camps will do an intake form. They’ll ask about like, how messy are they? What activities do they like? And, and don’t lie. Right? Like I think oftentimes we feel pressured…

Faith: Like my kid has no problems. Doesn’t even need hugs. 

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Right, exactly! [Laughs] You know, like they’re so perfect and you know, and oftentimes the camp, the whole point of asking those questions, because if your child is more introverted, they know, OK, well, let me look out for your child. Let me kind of introduce them to another kid that’s a little quieter as opposed to just throwing them into like, a talent show where they might be terrified, right?

Faith: Right, like maybe they’d be a great stage manager, right?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Exactly. So there’s definitely things to think about and to tell the camp so that way they can make some decisions.

Faith: So in terms of preparing for camp health wise, what, what are the immunizations that most camps require?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So in general the requirements are pretty standard from the department of health standpoint. So whatever you would have needed for school is typically what’s needed for camp, so kids should always have an annual exam, especially if they’re of the age that they’re going to be going away to camps. So they typically will require that camp form.

I do think that when you’re going to camp, those forms will also ask you about medications, and some of them are like over the counter things so you can kind of check off if your kid has a fever, if they have a rash, are they allowed to use certain creams.

So just talk to your doctor about what you think would be appropriate for your child. Obviously you want to make sure that if your child is on a standing medication for a chronic illness, you certainly should disclose that to the camp. If there are any mental health concerns, anxiety, depression, you know, you do want to make sure the camp is aware.

And you can ask them also like, what happens in case of emergency, which hospitals do you use? Would you call me first? Are you going to call the doctor’s office? So, you know, just to be in open communication that you feel comfortable if there is a change in the medical status that they are able to inform you.

Faith: Summer is such a wonderful and necessary time for kids to unwind and relax, but as any parent knows, it goes by so quickly. What do you recommend parents do to keep their kids ready for the school year? So nobody’s caught flat footed when school starts.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: So, we always talk about the summer drain that happens and oftentimes the skills that the kids have learned during the school year sort of diminish and so even though it’s, you know, 8 to 10 weeks, 12 weeks off, if they’re not keeping up with different activities from math and reading, it can be a slide. So if your school doesn’t require a summer list, I do recommend, you know, even a couple of books throughout the summer can keep them activated.

And they can do a little journal of what they liked about the book. What are some of the key topics? Would they recommend it to a friend? Something simple. It doesn’t have to be a 10 page book report, but just something to keep their brains thinking I think is really important.

Faith: It could be a conversation with their parents, right? Tell me about the book you’re reading. What’s the plot? What’s the theme?

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Exactly. 

Faith: Dr. Wilson-Taylor, thank you so much for all of this information, and I hope you and your kids have a great summer.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Absolutely. Thank you. Same to you. 

Faith: Thank you!

Our many thanks to Dr. Melanie Wilson-Taylor. I’m Faith Salie.

Health Matters is a production of NewYork-Presbyterian.

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Faith: I mean, Dr. Wilson-Taylor, at my kid’s camp they have something called gutter sundae, which is when the camp cleans out a gutter, or gets a new one, puts it in a lake on a sandbar and fills it with an ice cream sundae and the kids just eat out of the gutter, and then throw it on each other, 

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Ohhhh my god.

Faith: Which actually sounds like heaven if you are a tween…

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Oh, yeah, that’s insane. But it sounds like a lot of fun.

Faith: I want our listeners to know that Dr. Wilson-Taylor first put her head in her hands and then threw them up like jazz hands.

Dr. Wilson-Taylor: Listen, I can totally see that being like the highlight of every week.

Faith: Oh, yes.

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