10 Conversations to Have With Your Child Before Summer Camp

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Going away to summer camp for the first time is a rite of passage for your child and you. Getting ready for this adventure together means having real conversations about what to expect.

1. Choosing a destination

Start the camp conversation with your child before choosing a camp. Talk to him about what type of camp experience he wants and is ready for. Katie Johnson, executive director for the Southeast field office of the American Camp Association, suggests asking children what camp activities they most look forward to, then using this as a guide when looking at possible camps.

She says parents should also respect their children’s feelings about readiness for overnight camp. Overnight camps often offer mini-sessions to help children step into a full sleep-away experience.

If children are interested in overnight camp but are nervous, consider signing up for the same camp session as close friends, suggests Jen de Ridder, the director for the YMCA Camp Hanes in King. “Going to camp with a friend can be a real confidence booster, especially for the first time,” she says.

Research possible camps and narrow your choices down to two or three, says Robert Danos, assistant director for Camp Mondamin in Tuxedo. Then, let your child make the final choice. “That can work well for a child who needs to ‘buy in’ to the idea,” he says.

2. Getting ready for fun

Once you choose a camp and register, prepare your child for the experience by stoking the excitement. Build confidence by focusing on the fun.

“Talk about the friends they will make, the skills they will develop, and even share some of your own positive camp experiences,” says Brian Hollingsworth, director of Oak Hill in Oxford.

Hollingsworth cautions parents to pace themselves. “You don’t want to overload them with information or too many expectations,” he says. “Just keep the topic fresh and alive over time.”

3. Learning routines

Review handbooks and other information about day-to-day life at camp, then share it with your child. Johnson suggests discussing how the camp routine will differ from home. “Gradually introduce this information during daily routines,” she says.

Explain tasks such as making beds, packing trunks and tidying up, and how all of these things are important in a shared space. Also discuss bathroom procedures, such as what items your child should take to the bathhouse, and what to do if she needs to go to the bathroom at night.

Meals at camp are often served family style with everyone sitting around the table and pitching in to clean up. During meals at home, prepare kids for camp dining by emphasizing healthy food choices, table manners and cleaning up after oneself.

4.  Medicating appropriately

If your child takes daily medication, discuss this with the camp director and staff in advance, and prepare your child for the camp’s medication procedure. Also find out what your child should do if he or she is not feeling well.

5.  Turning out the lights

Once the flurry of daytime activities ends and the fire dies down, “lights out” can be the most difficult time for some children. Visit the camp beforehand to familiarize your child with the sleeping quarters. Also give your child strategies for falling asleep, such as relaxing by deep breathing or visualizing himself in a favorite spot.

Many city children go to camp unprepared for the total darkness without streetlights. Allay fears by buying a special camp flashlight and practice using it in the dark. Also prepare your child for the symphony of insect sounds he will hear during a country night.

6. Making friends

Give children behavioral guidelines about how they should treat others and befriend camp mates. “Relationships are the heart of every camp experience,” Hollingsworth says.

He also advises talking with children about the strengths and abilities they bring to the group. Their actions, gifts and talents can enrich the camp experience for everyone, Hollingsworth says.

Parents should prepare children for the diversity they are likely to experience at camp. “They will need to learn to get along with a wide variety of people,” de Ridder says. Teach them to make new friends by asking about others’ interests and being a good listener. Camp friendships often last a lifetime.

7. Enjoying the great outdoors

Much of summer camp fun involves being outside. Teach your child to protect herself from the elements.

Sunscreen is a must. Come up with a plan for when and how to apply it. Your child will want to ask a friend or counselor to help cover unreachable spots. Some children, especially boys, object to having others touch them to apply sunscreen. If this will be a problem for your child, send spray sunscreen, which is worth the extra expense to prevent a painful burn.

Also make sure children have basic outdoor training. Point out or show pictures of poisonous plants such as poison ivy and poison oak, and share the rhyme, “Leaves of three, let it be.” Teach your child to stay with the group to avoid getting lost on outings.

8. Pining for home

Most children who go away to camp feel homesick at some point.  Don’t dwell on it, but let your child know what homesickness feels like. Explain that he may feel lonely or even have a stomachache. Let him know this is normal. Reassure him that as he gets involved in camp activities, these feelings will pass. “That just means you love your family and love your life,” de Ridder says.

Find out how the camp handles homesickness. Once you know the procedure, tell your child what to do if these feelings become a problem.

Danos warns parents not to give their child an “out” after some artificial number of days if he is still missing home. “It is key for parents to let their child know that they are committed to the full session,” he says.

9. Checking in

Promise to write to your child at camp and follow through, but don’t promise more communication than the camp allows. De Ridder says some parents have trouble accepting not being able to communicate with their children more. They may send cellphones or expect daily email communication. She believes parents should embrace the independence fostered by the camp experience and not create unrealistic expectations for their child.

“Tell your child how excited you are about all the fun they will have and that you want to hear all about it when they get home,” she says.

10.  Sharing feelings

Listen to what your child has to say about her summer camp hopes and fears. Encourage excitement and talk through concerns. Let your camper personally email or call camp directors with any questions, which encourages her to take responsibility for her camp experience, Danos suggests. Attend camp tours and open houses. Doing so gives you both a better context to discuss the upcoming camp experience.

“Visiting ahead of time allows children to see the cabins and learn where the bath house is,” Johnson says. “That way parents and children have a visual.”

Talking to your child about going away to camp will help prepare you as well. Parents often have mixed feelings about their children leaving the nest. Emphasize the positive to your child and know that you are giving him a wonderful experience full of fun, new friends and opportunities to learn self-reliance.

Jan Wharton is a freelance writer and mother of three from Winston-Salem. For more information, visit janwharton.com.

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