For parents who never went to camp, the idea of sending a child away for two or more weeks may be daunting. How do you know when your child is ready for sleep-away camp?
The Right Age
“Kids themselves are the best judges of when they are ready. When they show spontaneous interest in camp, that’s a good clue that the time is right,” says Christopher Thurber, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of The Summer Camp Handbook.
Ari Segal, executive director of Camp Lee Mar, an overnight camp in Lackawaxen, PA for children with special needs, accepts children as young as age five. “We find that the younger our campers are when they start camp, the more positive changes can take place during camp.”
“Children who ask to go to camp, perhaps because their siblings do, or children who enjoy sleeping at friends’ or relatives’ homes are good candidates for overnight camp,” says Segal. “Even campers who show signs of separation anxiety when they sleep away from home can benefit from overnight camp, as camp can help change these behaviors while building up confidence.”
“Children who are relatively self-reliant, confident and comfortable in new surroundings will be happy at summer camp,” says Don Jennings, director of YMCA Camp Mason in Hartwick, NJ. “If they’ve been away on a school trip, or stayed with a relative for an extended period, or participated in a youth retreat or jamboree, then going away to camp shouldn’t be a problem.”
Jennings says kids who have completed the 1st grade are often ready for overnight camp. “Experience has shown us that the social and developmental skills associated with this age group are the best minimum requirement for participation,” he says.
According to director Steven Bernstein of Diamond Ridge Camps in Jamison, PA, “Campers who start overnight at age 8 or 9 have the easiest transitions from day to overnight camp. Sometimes the campers who begin overnight camp in their early teens have a more difficult time than the younger campers.”
In decades past, camps commonly ran for 4- or 8-week sessions. These days, camp sessions can be as short as one week.
Like many camp directors, Bernstein believes that a 2-week session is ideal for a first-time overnight camper, offering enough time for the camper to feel separated from home and have a true overnight camping experience.
Some camps offer a 1-week starter session for first-time families. Jennings says that many campers sign up for additional weeks at the end of starter sessions.
“If everyone’s feeling comfortable with camp, then I recommend a 2-week session at the very least,” he says. “Two weeks takes a camper through a full cycle (of activities) and it also gives plenty of time for solid relationships to build within cabin groups.”
Preparing your child
Day camp is a great way to introduce camp to young children, but it is a significantly different experience from overnight camp. So day camp experience is not necessary to succeed at a residential camp, says Segal.
Bernstein, on the other hand, finds that overnight campers who attended day camp first know what to expect and understand that camp is about traditions, friendships and memories.
Many camps have an open house before camp starts where newcomers can meet the staff, tour the camp and even pick out their beds. Bernstein suggests scheduling a tour of an overnight camp before the session begins to help a child feel less anxious. “It helps when children know what the cabins look like, know how big the dining hall is, and have a feel for the camp,” he says.
Jennings says parents can help prepare kids for overnight camp in several ways:
- Talk about the great activities at camp.
- Share positive stories about your own first experiences away from home.
- Encourage your child to try new things and make new friends.
- Allow your child to share in the excitement of getting supplies and packing for camp.
Your Attitude Counts
“Successful campers come from families in which the parents present camp as a wonderful experience and opportunity,” says Segal. “It is counter-productive to tell children that they can come home if they are unhappy, because then children only focus on the possibility of going home, and do not concentrate on all the wonderful things that camp has to offer.”
“Parents must understand that they are giving their child a wonderful growth-producing experience. They are not ‘sending’ their child away. Children feed off of their parents, so if the parents do not believe in what they are doing, their children can sense it,” he adds.
Separating for a first-time camp experience is usually harder for parents than it is for children, who quickly forge fast friendships and adapt to the routine and spirit of camp.
“I always tell parents that they can reach me at any time during the summer,” Jennings says. “As a parent I know how important it is to feel that your child is safe and well cared for. If you’re not sure what you’ll do while your child is away, practice ahead of time. Send him off for a weekend with relatives or a birthday sleepover and get used to a quiet house. And fewer dishes. And less laundry.”
Jennings adds, “I’d offer the same advice to a first-time parent at home as to a first-time camper at camp: Focus on the present, imagine the possibilities, try something new and be ready for success.”
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.