Although summer may seem faraway, sleepaway camp can be an exciting thing for kids and parents to look forward to – and it’s never too early to start gathering information and beginning to plan.

Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association, NY and NJ says that while there will be many changes due to COVID the fundamentals of the camp experience including kids gaining independence and confidence remain the same.

“Last summer, a number of overnight camps were able to operate in the northeast and they did so successfully by mitigating the risk of COVID in the camp environment,” says Lupert. “It’s too early to tell exactly what changes will need to be implemented for summer 2021 but there is a blueprint on how to run safely.”

Testing, cohorting, additional hand washing and sanitizing, daily health screenings, increased disinfecting of camp and masks when social distancing among cohorts can’t be maintained are just some of the strategies camps will be using.

The Importance of Disconnecting at Camp

“Camp feels more important than ever this year for children,” says Lupert. “So many children have been home from school learning remotely and are missing out on so many things that contribute to a child’s growth. They aren’t socializing the same way or trying new activities. Kids are around their parents a lot this year, not allowing for the healthy separation that lets children gain independence and make their own decisions. Camp provides so many of these opportunities and also gives children the chance to be part of a structured, safe environment.”

Adam Baker, owner/director of Camps Equinunk and Blue Ridge says there’s no more important time for kids to be in camp due to the social learning loss brought on by COVID.

“Camps offer an opportunity for an immersive social environment,” says Baker. “There has been loss in relationships and how we learn to make friends. It’s about the emotional development of the child.”

Nicki Fleischner, assistant director at Camp Scatico says that camps are slowing down and taking a back-to-basics approach.

“It’s not about cramming as many full-camp activities into a session as possible, or about all the bells and whistles, but just about campers and staff growing and playing together, screen-free, in the outdoors,” she says. “There is a renewed appreciation for the true essence of camp.”

Signs of Readiness

Even pre-COVID, the decision to send your child to sleepaway camp is a big one. Lupert says that if your child seems excited when you mention overnight camp that’s a good sign they are ready.

“This doesn’t mean they won’t be nervous (or that you won’t be) but it’s a good first step,” she says. “Successful overnight campers are often children who are interested in making new friends, trying new activities and have had successful overnights away from mom and dad. You also want to make sure your child knows how to shower themselves and take care of their own personal hygiene.”

“A concern we frequently get from parents is that their child will be shy about advocating for their needs and won’t speak up when they are feeling off, having an issue or need something,” says Fleischner. “Of course, every child is different, but on the whole camp fosters an environment that empowers kids to be vocal, and staff are trained to keep their eyes and ears open.”

Baker says that in a way, first-time campers will be at an advantage because they have no point of comparison as to what camp looked like pre-COVID. He says now is a great time to start gathering information so that you don’t need to make a rushed decision.

“Reach out to camps, speak with the directors, make those connections,” he says.

Protocols in Place

“For the summer ahead, camps are preparing for a world with or without a vaccine and implementing the necessary protocols to make camp safe for every member of our community,” says Fleischner. “At residential camps, we are learning tremendously from camps who operated in 2020, and how to effectively screen before camp and upon arrival and then maintain a bubble throughout the summer. Of course, things are still evolving, but for residential camps, it seems testing, podding, masking when indoors or mixing pods and limiting off-site experiences and visitors will be key.”

Baker says that the overall feeling about summer 2021 is one of optimism. He says that camps have been learning best practices from the ACA through webinars and other methods of communication. “Make sure to get your child in an ACA accredited program,” he advises. “They go way beyond what the states require.”

Overall, the best thing parents and kids can do is to start exploring options and to give themselves something to look forward to and get excited about.

“This summer is a big undertaking, and we have the people to do it,” says Baker.