When South Orange mom Nitya Karthik and her husband dropped their 11-year-old son off for two weeks of sleepaway camp last summer, they watched as he sprinted toward his temporary new home and wondered what they’d do with their newfound free time. Sleepaway camp is ripe with opportunities to teach your kids responsibility and independence. If you think your kids are ready, here’s what to consider when looking for the right camp.
WHAT KIND OF EXPERIENCE DOES SHE WANT?
Does she want a traditional sleepaway camp with a little bit of everything or a specialty camp? “Think about your family and your child,” says Renee Flax, director of camper placement for the American Camp Association (ACA), NY and NJ. “If it’s for a child who’s now in third or fourth grade, for instance, you could be looking at a six- to seven-year relationship with the camp.”
HOW LONG SHOULD HE STAY?
If he wants to spend more than a week or two, is that something he—and your family—can manage, assuming it fits into your budget? “If you’re working parents and need the coverage, then a full summer camp may be the right way to go,” says Flax. “If you’re a family that takes a big family vacation every summer or the kids stay with grandparents for a few weeks, then a shorter session camp would work.”
DOES SHE WANT HER SIBLING TO COME?
It may be easier to send your child to sleepaway for the first time if she has a connection to home. Ask the camp director how much interaction your children will have. She might feel better knowing her sibling is close by.
WHAT ARE ACCOMMODATIONS LIKE?
If you can, take advantage of open houses. You’ll want to know where your kid might sleep, what time she’ll get up in the morning, where and what she’ll eat and the bathroom accommodations (how often are they cleaned?).
DOES HE HAVE ALLERGIES OR HEALTH ISSUES?
Make sure the camp you choose has the resources and staff to provide necessary care—from prescription management to special dietary considerations. Make sure to speak with a medical staffer about your child’s allergies and find out what precautions are taken. It’s even more important that your child knows what symptoms indicate an allergic reaction, along with how to use an EpiPen and how much Benadryl to take. If he has asthma, he needs to know when and how to use his inhaler.
WHAT ELSE SHOULD PARENTS DO?
“Spend time before camp with the director,” suggests Scott Leonard, director at Pocono Springs Camp in East Stroudsburg, PA. “Go to off-season meetups, new camper orientations, even ask to meet or video chat with the head counselors.” Find out the camp’s staff-to-child ratio, and ask about training, certifications and ACA accreditation. “Always be sure to talk to the camp director about any concerns you have,” adds Flax. “They’ll be able to tell you in detail how their security operates and how they execute their staff training program.”
WILL YOU DROP HIM OFF?
Some camps offer transportation, but your family might be more comfortable dropping off your newbie. “There’s transportation, but we prefer to drop him off,” says South Orange resident Nitya Karthik, who sends her son to Independent Lake Camp in Thompson, PA. “Last year, we went together, [but] this year, my husband went with him. [We] stopped short at setting his bunk up; that’s for him to do.”
HOW DO THEY HANDLE HOMESICKNESS?
“That first evening back was rough, but soon, regular life took over,” says Karthik. “We love hearing from him every two to three days, and I know I can call anytime I want.” See if you can write letters or talk on the phone, and ask the director if and when campers can use cell phones. Depending on how long sleepaway is, there might also be a day where parents can visit.
At French Woods Festival of the Performing Arts in Hancock, NY, kids are encouraged to write letters and send emails to their families if they experience homesickness the first week. “Although you don’t typically talk to your child the first week of camp, your child’s counselor communicates via email, and there’s a picture website so you can see what your kids are doing without actually talking to them,” says Sharon Lull, a Rutherford mom of two whose 12-year-old son Andrew has gone to French Woods for the past two summers.
WHAT WILL THEY LEARN WHILE AWAY?
“Great sleepaway camps have a program and community focused on providing a safe place to succeed and sometimes, more importantly, fail,” says Leonard. “This environment allows campers to organically build confidence, strengthen grit and grow their problem-solving skills without their parents around.” Sleepaway camp is also a prime place for your kids to build lasting friendships outside the pressure of school. Says Lull’s son Andrew about his experience: “The staff is amazing, the opportunities to try new things are endless and you’ll make lifelong friends.”