Going to a sleepaway camp for the first time is a milestone. Kids will make fast friends and learn about new activities and ideas. They’ll eat foods they never would have tried at home, and will develop more confidence in themselves. Sleepaway camp gives kids a great opportunity to learn new life skills, too. If your child is anxious about the thought of going away next summer, do some thinking, planning, and talking now, so you can enrich your child’s first experience before it even begins.
If you know your child, you’ll know when she is ready for sleepaway camp. Every child’s temperament is different, so age should not be the determining factor. “The parents should look at their child’s attitude toward being away from home, as well as their child’s personality factors,” says Frank Sileo, PhD, author of Bug Bites and Campfires: A Story for Kids about Homesickness (Health Press, 2009).
Which Camp is Right?
You can find various camp locator organizations on the Internet, including the websites campparents.org, summercamp.org, or campsearch.com. Talk with friends and relatives. You can also check with local sources like newspapers, family magazines, and parks and recreation offices in your community. Evaluate whether a camp is appropriate for your child’s disposition and talents, and remember that just because you went to a specific camp as a child doesn’t mean that camp will be suitable for your child.
If your child is part of the selection process, it’s more likely she’ll be on board with the choice of camp. What special interests does she have? Explore different camp websites, pamphlets, and brochures together. Have discussions about what her goals are for camp. What does she want to do there and bring back home with her? “When are involved, even in a small way, in the decision-making process, they will experience increased feelings of control,” says Sileo. They will be more comfortable with the final decision. Don’t ever force your child to attend a camp.
Check out the camp with your child and speak with the director to get a feel for its culture. “Visit the camp and look for cleanliness of facilities and interaction with your child, find out how the staff is selected and what criteria [are] used,” says Jerry Huncosky, president and CEO of Frost Valley YMCA camp in the Catskill Mountains.
Talk About Apprehensions
It’s common for most kids to experience homesickness at some time during their camp stay. Before camp, talk with your child and let him know it’s okay to miss home and the family. This gives him “permission” to feel as he does, and helps the adjustment. “Children often feel they are the only ones experiencing a negative feeling,” says Sileo.
Role-playing, too, helps kids think through situations they haven’t experienced before, like finding a flashlight at night to run to the bathroom, or asking a counselor for help. When parents provide simple life applications, kids will become more confident in their ability to handle new situations.
You might consider sending your child to camp with a friend to ease the adjustment, but that has pros and cons. Attending camp with a friend may give a shyer child the courage later on to attend alone. However, your child may cling to her friend instead of exploring all the opportunities camp offers.
Build the Excitement
Tell your child about the fun she’ll have as she learns new crafts and finds new skills. “Your confidence in a positive experience will be contagious,” says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association.
Kids love to hear stories about their parents when they were “young.” Describe your own summers at camp and talk about what you learned. You also can talk about the independence your child will gain by being away from home for a while. “Families can also encourage healthy separation, like overnight visits with family and friends, through-out the year,” says Smith.
Of course, as a parent, you’ll be apprehensive when your child first goes away to camp, but it’s a normal part of the growing-up process. And the camp director and staff are trained to deal with homesick kids. In fact, your child will more than likely surprise you with how well he does his first time away. “In reality, 99 percent of kids flourish without the parent,” says Huncosky.
Sleepaway camps promote growth and independence. At the end of the session, when you meet your child at the bus or find him in a crowd, don’t be surprised if the first thing he says is: “When can I go again?”
Article by Jan Udlock, who has five children who have all gone to sleepaway camp.