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Sleepaway camp may be the first time your child is out from under your wings for an extended period of time. How do you know when they’re ready? How do you know which camp is best for them? Once you determine which camp you’re headed to, your child will dive into a summer of community living, building relationships, trusting new adults and exerting their independence.

GAUGING THEIR INTEREST

There is no set age that a child is ready for sleepaway camp. Alicia Skovera, executive director of the American Camp Association, (ACA) NY and NJ, says she rarely sees kids younger than 8 years old pack their bags for overnight camp, but it’s very child-specific and depends on their social skills and attachment to family. 

If they bring up the topic, it’s a great time for a parent to explore the option, she says. If they have a friend who’s gone before or is interested in going talk, to their parents. “I encourage parents to not push their kids to go to camp before they’re ready … because you don’t want them to not have a good experience,” she says. “But usually it’s their best experience ever.”

FINDING THE RIGHT CAMP

Jackie Brethel, director of Camp Kippewa Point, a two-week sleepaway camp in Maine for girls ages 6-13, says the most important factor is finding a camp that matches your child’s interests. For example, if they’ve always wanted to try horseback riding and a camp offers that, it could be a big draw. “If it’s interesting to them it’s a good way to set it up,” she says. “Does it feel like a place you could see your child?”

If you or your child prefer a more educational component, a specialized day camp may be a better option. Sleepaway camp offers “recreational education,” Brethel explains—for example, there aren’t math and science classes but kids are learning to follow directions, a routine and handle tasks. Some kids come home from sleepaway in the habit of making their beds and keeping their rooms neat because they did that on a daily basis at camp. 

Skovera says finding a camp for your child is an individual decision. “Every camp really has its own philosophy and set of values. You want to make sure the camp you choose matches your family’s values as well,” she says. “Take into consideration who your child is…and what their interests are.”

Skovera explains that regulation by the state’s health department is step one, and accreditation by the ACA is a must because “it’s truly a parent’s best evidence of a camp’s commitment to safety.” 

She recommends attending camp fairs and open houses so you and your child can get a firsthand look at both the scenery and programs offered. In addition, Renee Flax, director of camper placement for the ACA, offers free one-on-one advice on what camp may be right for your kid when you call. She works with more than 400 camps in the Northeast.

“Talk to other families that have been there. It’s a great way to find out about the camp’s reputation and their safety record,” Skovera suggests.

QUESTIONS TO ASK

Skovera recommends having these questions ready in advance: 

Who’s the camp director? How long have they been employed? Are they seasonal or a year-round employee? Do they have a background in youth development? 

What is the age of the staff and what is their experience level? What training do they receive? Does everyone go through a background check? Do they have character references on file? What are the qualifications for instructors? 

What are the behavior management protocols and child safety protection measures? 

What are the emergency plans, especially in the event of a natural disaster or evacuation? Is there a doctor or nurse on staff or on call—and do they live on site? Where is the nearest clinic or hospital? 

What is the policy for visitors or guests? 

If there is a waterfront area, are the lifeguards certified? How many kids can be in the water at once and what is the ratio of staffers to campers?

Nicki Fleischner, who co-directs Camp Scatico in Elizaville, NY, with her father, David, suggests parents ask if the camp you’re considering offers a trial day or trial week. She also recommends asking: Is the camp all-elective where kids choose their activities or is everything scheduled in advance? How many campers attend and how many cabins are assigned per group? 

HELP WITH HOMESICKNESS

Kids will most likely be nervous no matter where they go, but Brethel says offering to take them home sends a message that it’s okay to give up, and that their parents are the only ones who can keep them safe.

“Nerves are normal that first summer, and nerves are actually a good sign because it means your kid is processing what a big step this is, and it really is a big step,” Fleischner says. 

She said it’s a good idea to talk with the camp director or head counselor and come up with a strategy to deal with homesickness before camp starts. Don’t bargain in advance, giving your child the option to come home; instead, let them know they will be safe and have fun.

Says Fleischner: “Once you step through the gates of the camp…your sense of how far you are from home disappears.”