Date: March 1, 2011
Going to an overnight, or residential, camp is a milestone for children. Kids will make fast friends and experience new ideas. They'll eat foods that they would have never tried at home and develop more self-confidence. Residential camps provide a prime opportunity for kids to learn new life skills, too. If your child is anxious about the thought of going away this summer, do some thinking, planning and talking now, so you can enrich your child's experience before it even begins.
Is your child ready?
Parents will generally know when their child is ready for a sleepover camp. Every child's temperament is different, so age should not be the determining factor.
"The parents should look at their child's attitude toward being away from home as well as their child's personality factors," says Frank Sileo, author of Bug Bites and Campfires: A Story for Kids about Homesickness.
If a young child — age 6, 7 or 8 — is nervous, you may want to consider a shortened session or wait a year, says Henry DeHart, executive director of Camp Sea Gull in Arapahoe, N.C. "The benefits of camp are compounded if a child goes for more than a year," he says, "so it may be better to wait and come for a number of years rather than come too early and not enjoy it," he says.
Parents can talk with their children about their readiness, but some kids may be less inclined to be away from home and need a little extra encouragement, DeHart says. "It's harder to start this type of experience once kids are 13 or 14 versus 10 or 11," he says. "The older they get with their nervousness, the harder it is."
Which camp is right?
Just because you went to a specific camp as a child does not mean that camp will fit your child. A parent needs to evaluate whether a particular camp will meet achild's disposition and talents. Parents should never force a child to attend a camp.
There are various camp locator organizations on the Internet where parents can investigate a variety of camps. (Carolina Parent also provides directories of camp options at www.carolinaparent.com/directories/camps.)
Talk among friends and family members to find out about different camps for your child. It is important for your child to be part of the selection process so she is on board with the choice.
Consider: What special interests does your child have? Explore different camp websites, pamphlets and brochures with your child. Talk with your child about her goals for camp. What does she want to do and get from camp?
"When children are involved, even in a small way in the decision-making process, they will experience increased feelings of control," Sileo says. They will be more comfortable with the final decision.
Check out the camp with your child and speak with the camp director to get a feel for the camp culture.
"Tours are important," says Jeana Schopfer, outdoor education and after-school director who works with residential campers and staff at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland, N.C. She recommends parents look at the camp's cleanliness and whether the equipment is in good condition. Are the staff members who give the tour knowledgeable about the camp? Are they friendly?
"Most camps have an open house where you get to meet staff. When [kids] come for that first time, making a connection with a staff member before they get to camp would be good," says Schopfer, who is also known as the Homesickness Queen.
Schopfer and DeHart both stress finding out whether the camp is accredited by the American Camp Association.
Talk about apprehensions
It is common for most children to experience homesickness at some time during their camp stay. Before camp, talk with your kid and let him know it's OK to miss home and the family. This gives your child permission and helps the adjustment.
Role-playing helps kids think through situations that they have not experienced before, such as finding a flashlight at night to go to the bathroom or asking a counselor for help. When parents provide simple life applications, kids will become more confident to handle new situations.
"Tell them that at first it can be scary, but that they will make new friends," Schopfer says, "and that the counselors are there to take care of them, not like Mom or Dad would, but in a different, fun way."
Schopfer also recommends setting small goals with apprehensive children, especially if they are young. For example, if campers can receive e-mail from parents, like at Camp Chestnut Ridge, let them know that after the first night, they will have an e-mail waiting the second night. Also send something with them to camp, like a family photo or a note.
Take a friend?
Going to camp with a friend has its pros and cons. Attending with a friend may help a shyer child take the step of trying overnight camp. However, your child may cling to his friend and not explore all the opportunities at camp if he's with a good buddy.
Build the excitement
Tell your child about the fun that she'll have at camp. She'll learn new crafts and play new games. "Your confidence in a positive experience will be contagious," says Peg Smith, chief executive of American Camp Association.
Kids love to hear stories about their parents and when they were "young." Share stories about your positive camp experience and what you learned. You can talk about the independence a child will gain by staying at camp.
"Families can also encourage healthy separation, like overnight visits with family and friends, throughout the year," Smith says.
Recognize your own hesitations
As a parent, you will have normal apprehensions when your child first goes away to camp. Remember the camp director and staff are trained to deal with homesick kids. Your child will more than likely surprise you on how well he does his first time away.
DeHart says it's much more likely that parents are nervous about sending their kids, and the kids are ready to go to camp.
Sleepover camps promote growth and independence. At the end of camp, you'll meet your child at the bus or find her in a crowd and the first thing she'll say, "When can I go again?"
Jan Udlock has five children who have all gone to sleep-away camp. Additional reporting by Carolina Parent Editor Crickett Gibbons, who attended Girl Scout camps and a Wider Opportunity as a teen.
Camp Selection Homework Helper
By doing some advance work, parents can feel confident that they selected the right camp. Here are some questions Henry DeHart, executive director at Camp Sea Gull, recommends to help parents build their confidence:
- Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association? Accredition is a thorough process and includes health and safety baseline issues, he says.
- What is the camper-to-counselor ratio, and what is the minimum age for counselors to be in charge of cabins?
- How are the cabin groups developed? DeHart's experience is the more thoughtful this process, the better the camp experience.
- What type of medical support is provided at the camp?
- How is discipline handled, and how is this communicated with parents when it happens?
- How do I know what happened at camp if there aren't any problems? Are there reports from counselors? Updates? Is information about a camper's activities and achievements shared with parents?
Jeana Schopfer at Camp Chestnut Ridge also tells parents to find out about food and talk to the kitchen manager if a child has any food allergies.
— Crickett Gibbons