For years, you’ve been hearing great things about Camp Terrific at Lake Fabulous, and you can’t wait for your 6-year-old daughter to experience the joy of sleepaway camp. You’ve talked with the camp director, and you’ve asked all the important questions. You’ve run the numbers, and your budget is in good shape. All your ducks are in a row, right?
Before you start sewing name labels into any underwear, there’s one more crucial question to ask: Is your child really ready?
No Magic Number
Camp readiness isn’t wholly dependent on age; it’s actually dependent on a number of factors: age, emotional maturity, everyday skills, and the ability to attend to matters of personal care and hygiene. Because development in these areas varies greatly from child to child, experienced camp professionals are reluctant to pinpoint a specific “camp-ready” age.
“There is no right age at which all children are ready,” write Jon C. Malinowski and Christopher Thurber, authors of The Summer Camp Handbook. Instead of looking for a magic number, Malinowski and Thurber encourage parents to take camp readiness cues from their children. “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.”
When pressed for numbers, Renee Flax, director of camper placement for the American Camp Association (NY and NJ), says children under the age of 7 typically don’t go to overnight camp. Flax says most 7-year-olds are even a little young, although going to camp with an older sibling may improve the results. “On average, children going into 3rd or 4th grade are usually the biggest group of first-time campers.”
Even so, she encourages parents to look beyond age. “It is more important that your child is emotionally mature,” she explains.
What skills, if any, does your child need to brush up on before attending camp?—>
In addition to emotional maturity, camp directors and counselors suggest that parents look at practical matters. How much daily assistance does your child need? For example, can she tell time? Can she be responsible for her own daily grooming and personal hygiene?
Counselors are on hand for basic assistance, to lead activities, and to ensure the safety of all campers, but the counselors can’t substitute for parents. If your child isn’t used to being responsible for herself, she’ll need some preparation before a sleepaway experience. Talk with staff members to find out what basic skills your child will need.
“Children should also be able to follow directions and ask questions,” recommends Flax. “If a child is too intimidated or shy to speak up, they will have a hard time adjusting. If they don’t feel well, don’t like the food, or need comforting, they should be able to express themselves clearly.”
The Right Environment
It also helps to find a program that has experience working with young children. Be on the lookout for a camp that trains its staff to deal with age-specific concerns and hires counselors who know how to work with very young campers.
The youngest of campers do require a level of parent-like supervision that not all counselors know how to provide if they haven’t worked with younger children before—from making sure they go to the bathroom regularly and bathe properly, to reminding them to change their clothes daily and eat right.
If you’re thinking about sending your young child to sleepaway camp, remember to consider her level of maturity and her personality. Make sure camp staff members are trained to cope with age-specific concerns. And find out how many other young children will attend. Your child will feel more comfortable if she’s surrounded by other campers her age.
Contributing editor Cathy Ashby is a former camper, camp counselor, and camp director.