Making the Most of Camp Experiences

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The right summer camp has the potential to support a child’s social and emotional development and provide opportunities for growth. Selecting the right camp from the sea of possibilities can be an overwhelming task: How big? Overnight or day camp? Full day or half day? One week or eight weeks? With familiar people or in a new group?

This month, we will focus on some ways to go about making this decision while also factoring in your child’s current developmental needs.


Use the 90 Percent Rule

The right camp should feel safe and comfortable enough for a child to manage the challenges and navigate the social aspects independently. In addition, it should encourage a child to reach just beyond his or her comfort zone and try new experiences.

At the Lucy Daniels Center, we often recommend that parents use what we call the “90 percent rule” when making decisions about camps, school placement, travel, playdates, parties and other extracurricular activities. The rule is simple: Present a challenge to your child only if you are about 90 percent sure his or her experiences will be successful.


Why 90 Percent?
Children build healthy self-esteem when they feel competent and successful. The most important source of this sense of competency comes from experiences — challenges met and mastered. While you can’t really quantify certainty or uncertainty, we use the level of 90 percent as a way of representing near certainty, with only a small chance of failure. Parental instinct and judgment play a big role here. If you’re feeling unsure and perhaps even anxious about the experience, listening to those instincts is often the best way to go.


Different Percentages for Different Children

Some children are particularly resilient in the face of challenges and failures. They may become more determined to try again and succeed, or are able to cope with the upset or disappointment in a way that does not set them back. Parents of emotionally resilient children can, therefore, take more risks when signing their children up for new experiences. They may be able to use an 80 percent rule, since failures are not usually setbacks for their children.

Other children respond to the same challenges and failures with embarrassment or anxiety. These children may try to protect themselves from failing again by hesitating — or even refusing to take new risks. Parents of these children have to be more mindful of the emotional risks involved when signing up their kids for new experiences. Therefore, their 90 percent rule might be more like 95 or even 99 percent, keeping that sliver of doubt as small as possible.


Specialized Camps

If you aren’t certain a summer camp would be a successful experience for your child, perhaps a more specialized camp would work. Social skills camps, for example, operate with a sensitivity to children’s emotional and social needs, and are led by instructors who pay special attention to the challenges of joining a group, meeting new people, playing and sharing with peers, and trying new experiences outside of the camper’s comfort zone. Our experiences providing social skills groups have taught us that some children have the capacity to thrive in an environment that is particularly sensitive to social and emotional difficulties. 


Making the Choice

Finding the right summer camp can be as simple as finding one that is centered on one or more of your child’s interests. However, depending on your child’s social and emotional development, even the most interesting camp may not suit his or her current developmental needs.

Think about how your child does in a number of settings and use that information to make your best prediction of how successful he or she might feel in a new and unfamiliar group. Choosing a camp that meets all of your child’s developmental needs can provide for a rewarding and enriching summer experience.

The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit to learn more.


Categories: Day Camps, Development, Health and Development, Mental Health, Overnight Camps, Track-out Camps