All parents worry that their child won’t make friends at summer camp. Fortunately, most camps are structured in a way so friendships happen naturally, and counselors are trained to facilitate friendships especially among children who may be introverted or have special needs. Parents can prepare their children and take advantage of opportunities to forge new friendships at camp. Here’s how:
Allow your kids to choose
If your child is attending a camp that focuses on his interests – whether it’s sports, music, travel, or nature – he’s more likely to find children with common interests and to feel more open to interacting with others. Lee Corley, owner of Camp Voyages in Philadelphia, says, “Listen to what activities or type of camp your child says he’s interested in. If children aren’t happy it can hinder their ability to make friends.”
Attend pre-camp gatherings
Camp Voyages allows bunkmates to meet before camp begins. Corley encourages campers to attend the pre-camp celebrations and to take advantage of these events. Encourage children to stay in touch with the kids she meets in the weeks between the event and the start of camp.
Attend with a friend– or not
Sending your child to camp with a friend may seem like a perfect solution, Teri Valente, director at Camp Arrowhead in Lewes, DE, says, “Bringing a friend along helps some children acclimate and really impedes others.” Think about how he is likely to behave if he attends camp with a friend before making that decision.
For some, the security of having an already-established friend helps them feel comfortable to participate and to make new friends. For others, it can prevent them from making new friends, and in some cases, it can even stress a friendship if one friend makes new friends faster than the other, causing jealousy or resentment, Valente says.
If your child attends camp where they know friends, Beth Segal, director of JCC Camps at Medford in New Jersey, says, “Parents shouldn’t say, ‘You’re going to know so-and-so from school.’ Encourage them to make new friends. The more kids they’re exposed to, the more they’ll grow socially.”
Most camps offer an ice-breaker or play unity games to help kids get to know each other. Encourage him to participate in these games and all of the activities the camp offers, even if he’s new to an activity or feels nervous. Friendships often develop naturally through shared activities and experiences.
Research for special needs
If your child tends to have trouble making friends or has special needs, find out what the camp does to help children socially before committing to a camp. At JCC Camps at Medford, campers with special needs have a one-on-one advocate provided by the camp to help the child navigate interactions and make sure he’s included, explains Segal.
Some camps focus specifically on helping children with special needs develop social skills. Summit Camp and Travel in Honesdale, PA is a camp for children and teens with developmental, social, emotional and learning challenges. Managing Director Shepherd Baum says, “We have all kinds of activities like ziplining, basketball, baseball and go-karting, but they are really just a means to create social interactions and make friends.” Some kids who have no friends at all go to camp, and good counselors can teach them how to start conversations as well as how to answer questions and follow up to continue a conversation. Baum added, “We teach them to allow other people space and not overwhelm the other person. We teach them that not everyone is going to be their best friend, but if they’re nice and keep trying they’ll find their best friend.”
Valente advises teaching your kids the same things you do to help them make friends at school or in the neighborhood to make friends at camp. She says, “Teach them to share, to take turns, to welcome others, to be encouraging, and to generally be kind. You might have them practice introducing themselves and asking another child to join them in an activity. You could even slip a Frisbee, deck of cards, or another game in their bag that they can play with other children.”
Susan Stopper is a frequent contributor to MetroKids.