So your child has reached that magical stage in their life when they are finally ready to pack they bags, and head off to overnight camp. No mom or dad, no family pets, no familiar environment, no school-friends, no extended family. If this sounds a little frightening, then read on. Most kids do really well at overnight camp… while a small number may struggle. How can you, as a parent, ensure your child has the time of her life? Here’s some tips:
1. Make sure your child is ready to make the leap!
Just because you had your first successful camp experience at eight years old doesn’t mean all children are ready at that age. If your child responds with enthusiasm to the idea of overnight camp, chances are he is ready. If he has already spent weekends away from family, and returned longing for more, then it’s a pretty good bet overnight camp will be a successful experience. A child with a positive self image who is outgoing, can advocate reasonably for himself, responds well to time away from family, makes friends readily and is excited by new experiences will most likely love overnight camp at an early age. A hesitant, shy child who longs for home… Well, you get the idea!
2. Involve your child in the selection process…
… and make this part of the excitement! Decide together how long the camp experience should be, and what kinds of activities your child would like to take part in. The most important deciding factor when selecting a camp may not be the location, activities or facilities… but the camp philosophy. That’s why it’s important to read the brochure and website carefully, and meet with the director, if possible. How do they select their staff? Do they have a religious affiliation? What are their views on supervision? How do they tackle homesickness, bullying and other issues? Do they offer a competitive or collaborative approach? Finding out as much as you can about a camp is the biggest guarantee of finding the best fit for your child.
3. Stay positive about the camp experience!
Once the final camp selection has been made, the biggest mistake parents make is disrupting their child’s enthusiasm with their own nerves! It can often be harder for a parent to be away from their child, than it is for the child – but your child does not need to be burdened with this. It’s natural for you to worry – but if your anxieties are conveyed to your child, then they may become hesitant about the experience. Never promise a child they can come home if they get homesick – this could guarantee failure. Convey to you child that you are excited for her, and you know it’s going to be a great experience.
4. Fill in camp forms fully and honestly.
Many children who struggle at camp do so because a parent failed to disclose all necessary information to the camp directors. One summer, our camp welcomed a young boy who was belligerent and withdrawn. Other campers shied away from him, and his counselors were puzzled by his behavior. It was over a week before we learned he had been violently bullied at school, and was terrified the same thing might happen at camp. With better information, we could have helped this child settle in to camp much more quickly. Other details parents have neglected to tell us include recent deaths in the family, negative experiences at other camps, recent broken bones and suspected eating disorders. It is the goal of all camps to give young people safe and positive summer experiences, but if parents fail to provide full details about the needs of their child then this can be difficult to do.
5. Involve your child in all preparations!
Read through everything the camp says… together. Go through the packing list together. Shop together. Pack together. Inviting a child to participate in all aspects of preparation encourages anticipation and self-reliance.
6. Prepare your child for what to expect.
Camp food may be really good – and it usually is – but it WILL be different from home. Sleeping in a bunk bed with other kids all around is going to be different. Waking and bed time hours, the bathrooms, the daily schedule… all may require an adjustment for your child. Discuss these things together – and positively. Going to bed with your friends all round you is an adventure – even if someone snores a bit. Most camp websites provide examples of menus and daily schedules, so you can review these together. Camp teaches adaptability, and kids are always more adaptable if they learn that change equals adventure, not fear.
7. Make sure your child can take care of herself.
At overnight camp, kids have to do a certain amount for themselves. They must unpack their own bags, wash and shower by themselves, sort their own laundry, make their beds, decide what to wear, remember to brush their teeth and select healthy food choices. A child who can easily do most of these things for herself is unlikely to find camp a tough adjustment. But ‘taking care of yourself’ can mean more than just personal hygiene. Does your child understand the importance of speaking out if she is too cold, not feeling well, being treated unfairly or has a personal need that is not being met? The ability to advocate for themselves need not be sophisticated – chatting to a friendly counselor is all that is required – but it can make the difference between a smooth and a difficult camp experience.
Oh – and if your child gets homesick at camp, don’t panic!
All camp directors have seen parents respond to homesickness with the knee jerk reaction – often resulting in a child being removed from camp early, when they really have no desire to leave. It’s normal for children to experience some degree of homesickness when they first attend overnight camp. It’s also normal for a child to over-dramatize a situation to parents on the phone. A few summers ago, a mildly homesick camper at our camp was heard to report to a parent over the phone that she was miserable, had no friends and wanted to come home. Instead of calling the camp office to discuss the issue, the parents drove four hours up to camp. After the call, their daughter immediately ran off to the pool with a bunch of her friends, arm in arm and laughing. The parents arrived expecting to find her sobbing in a corner somewhere – instead, they saw a happy, well adjusted and thriving camper who told them in no uncertain terms that she wasn’t leaving! Don’t over-react if your child seems less than happy – but always contact the directors to discuss the issue. With open communication and true partnership between camp staff and the parents, solutions are usually found.
Overnight camp is an important and exciting milestone in the life of your child, and with a little preparation and forethought, can be one of the most thrilling and memorable experiences they will ever have.
Julie Hartley is one of the directors of Centauri Summer Arts Camp (http://www.centauriartscamp.com). Centauri is an overnight camp in the Niagara Region of Ontario, offering intensive arts training in 40 different arts specialties for youth aged 9-18.
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