For years, you’ve been hearing great things about Camp Terrific at Lake Fabulous, and you can’t wait for your 8-year-old to experience the joy of sleepaway camp. You’ve talked to the camp director, and asked all the important questions. You’ve run the numbers, too, and your budget’s in good shape. All your ducks are in a row, right? Before you start sewing name labels into 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—a slew of different factors matter, including emotional maturity, everyday skills and the ability to attend to personal care and hygiene. Because development in these areas varies greatly from kid to kid, experienced camp professionals are reluctant to pinpoint a specific “camp-ready” age.
Instead of looking for a magic number, clinical psychologist and camp consultant Lonnie Sarnell, PsyD, says, “There’s no perfect age to start,” Sarnell says. “It can be helpful to find out the typical age that campers start at the sleepaway camp you’re most interested in, as well as how many new campers are in each age group beyond the youngest campers.”
Renee Flax, director of camper placement for the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey, says most 7-year-olds are a little young for sleepaway, although going to camp with an older sibling may improve the results. “On average, children going into third or fourth grade are usually the biggest group of first-time campers.”
Even so, she encourages parents to look beyond age. Can he follow directions and respect counselors and group leaders? Does he get along well with peers? How does he problem-solve?
On top of assessing emotional readiness, camp directors and counselors suggest parents look at practical considerations, too. How much daily assistance does your child need? For example, can she tell time? Can she take a shower and get dressed on her own?
Counselors are on hand for basic assistance, to lead activities and ensure the safety of all campers, but they aren’t a substitute for parents. If your child isn’t used to being responsible for herself, she’ll need some prep before a sleepaway experience.
“Children should also be able to follow directions and ask questions,” recommends Flax. “If a child is too intimidated or shy to speak up, she’ll have a hard time adjusting. If she doesn’t feel well, doesn’t like the food or needs comforting, she should be able to express herself clearly.”
If you’re worried about your kid taking on new tasks, like tidying his bunk regularly, work with him before drop off. “This might involve assigning them chores at home, signing them up for a new activity that’ll help them step outside their comfort zone or working with a therapist to address any anxiety or social difficulties they may have,” says Sarnell.
Before sleepaway, it’s also a good idea to make sure your kid has had successful overnights away from home. “If your child easily attends sleepovers and has the ability to fall asleep independently without the use of technology, which they likely won’t have access to at camp, it’s a good sign that they’re ready for the sleeping part of sleepaway camp,” says Sarnell. Test it gradually: Try a sleepover with a friend close to home, then a few consecutive nights away.
THE RIGHT ENVIRONMENT
If your kid’s going to sleepaway camp on the younger side, it’ll help to find a program with counselors who have experience working with young children. Look for a camp that trains its staff to deal with age-specific concerns.
Many sleepaway camps offer day camps for younger kids, too, which is a good sign. Talk with counselors and directors about their training procedures—does staff training vary by camper age? What certifications do counselors have?
The youngest campers require a level of supervision that not all counselors know how to provide if they haven’t worked with younger kids before. Be sure to find out how many other young children will attend. Both you and your child will feel more comfortable if she’s surrounded by other campers her age.