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Camp is an adventure for kids of any age, but for little ones it may be their first opportunity to make new friends, learn to follow a schedule and explore a novel environment in a setting designed just for preschoolers. How do you know which camp is best for your child and which age is ideal? There’s no magic age for a child to begin attending camp, but there are signs your child is ready to try something new, says Amanda E. Fink, director of curriculum and instruction for The Westmont Montessori School in Mendham. Parents should look for signs of independence, such as being able to stay with a babysitter or friend, their ability to self soothe and curiosity for the world around them, she says. That means kids can generally start their day camp experience as young as age 2—but make sure you ask if they need to be toilet trained.

“While this is an exciting time for children, families often experience anxiety about letting their children go to camp,” says Kristina Koonce, senior marketing and communications specialist for Apple Montessori Schools, which has multiple locations throughout New Jersey. “We ask families to help provide peace of mind by researching and asking the staff questions. Focus on the reason they chose to send their child to camp. …This time at camp allows children to continue developing academically and socially while having fun and meeting new friends—all in a safe and loving environment.”

STARTING YOUR SEARCH There are so many camps to choose from, including full-day, half-day and camps held inside or outdoors—but they should always be developmentally appropriate, says Fink. 

“Camp should encourage children to explore, be creative and be challenged to try new things,” she says. “Ideally, a good summer camp should have activities that engage children to learn while doing, rather than to sit and be entertained. Nature exploration, arts and crafts, and science experiments are wonderful for all children even as young as 2 years old.”

Linsey Cozewith, marketing and communications director for the Madison Area YMCA, says kids at a young age learn and get more comfortable socializing with their peers. The youngest and first-time campers may be shy at first, but camps will engage them in team-building games and fun activities so they’ll quickly warm up, she says. 

“Other ways we see kids learn and grow at camp is by looking at where they started the summer with us, and then seeing all the new skills gained and friendships made by summer’s end,” she says. “The growth over the summertime can be just incredible for our preschool-age campers. Many campers learn swimming skills, play a new sport, and grow their social skills. They practice independence, empathy, responsibility and build their self-confidence. Throughout the summer, our campers realize who they are and what they like to do by trying new activities.” 

Summer camp should take a balanced approach, and especially for campers so young, fun should be at the forefront, says Koonce. But summer learning also has a proven, positive impact on both a child’s academic and social-emotional development, she says. While doing everyday camp activities kids are learning to navigate many of the situations they’ll encounter at school.

Camp helps kids learn the importance of a routine early on. “Each day at camp, we have a routine, including morning meeting, activities, lunch, afternoon activities and closing circle,” Cozewith says. “We teach our campers many important lessons that will help them throughout the school day, including being respectful to others, sharing, waiting one’s turn and how to be a good friend.” 

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SAFETY AND SUPERVISION 

Supervision at camp is of the utmost importance, Fink says. Between 2-and-a-half and 4 years old there should be a ratio of 14 campers with one adult and one counselor (1:7). By age 5 the ratio changes to one adult and one counselor for each group of 20 (1:10). 

Be sure to inquire about the supervision on the buses camps use for transport to and from camp and on field trips, Fink says. You should also ask about the procedures for boarding buses and buckling kids into their seats.

Before signing your child up for camp, double check any COVID restrictions or safety requirements that change throughout the year, at the state, federal and local government levels. 

Camp is a time where children develop lifelong skills and independence, learn teamwork, and build self-esteem, so the earlier you start them on this journey, the better. There are so many other benefits, too.

Says Cozewith: “Camp is a place to make and build new friendships, a time and freedom for spontaneous play, filled with screen-free activities, a structure that supports healthy eating and physical activity, a connection to nature, and is a safe environment to promote growth.”