Every spring, camp directors and counselors begin planning for the best three months of the year: summer camp. This year, as a parent, be prepared when you send your child off to camp for the first time.
Is my child ready?
First, consider your child’s age. Is he advanced for a 7-year-old? Is he a slightly immature 10-year-old? If you’re questioning whether or not your child is ready, send him to a day camp, or a shortened sleep-away session rather than for an entire week.
Your child’s level of independence also plays a significant role. Can he dress himself, tie his shoes, make his bed, and shower without help from an adult? To help him practice, arrange sleepovers for him during the months leading up to camp—this will prepare him for sleeping away from home and getting ready for the day in a different environment. When the weather is nice, camp out in the backyard with him so sleeping outside becomes less frightening.
If your child is shy, don’t assume he isn’t ready. Summer camp is a safe environment where kids are encouraged to be themselves, but also to step out of their comfort zones. Shy kids may initially be intimidated, but your soft-spoken kid may make a friend at camp who helps him reach out to other kids, or he may discover a sport or hobby that boosts his confidence.
Solo or with a buddy?
Many camps will offer parents the option of sending their child to camp with a buddy; this can be great for young, first-time campers who may be nervous.
A cabin full of kids is naturally an argument breeding ground, so be careful to not send your child to camp with a friend that she is prone to bicker with. Send her with a buddy who is easy-going and will help her have fun and make new friends. You don’t want her to be abandoned by her buddy, but you also don’t want the two to cling to one another and isolate from the other campers.
The older kids get and the more comfortable they become at camp, the more willing they may be to go alone. Pre-teens and teenagers often form long-lasting friendships with other campers. Encourage your child to plan her week with a friend she met during a previous summer; this builds a unique bond, and allows the girls to connect on a level outside of school.
Sending her to camp with a group of girls larger than two is asking for trouble. Making new friends is one of the great joys of camp, and doing so is difficult when there’s a large cluster of girls who already know one another.
For group bonding in a camp setting, take a Girl Scout troop to a camp event— like a mother-daughter weekend or a troop getaway—on a weekend in the spring or fall. They’re designed for girls of all ages to bond and experience camp together.
Chances are, your child’s neatly structured suitcase or trunk will be a disaster by the first morning call. To help him stay somewhat organized, resist the urge to pack for him, and encourage him to help you. This way, he’ll remember where things are, so he doesn’t reach in for a flashlight and pull out a poncho.
Despite his protests, write your child’s name or initials on everything. He’ll appreciate it when he realizes that every kid whose mom shops at Target has the same bug spray, water bottle, and towel.
For younger campers, pack each day’s clothing in a separate, labeled Ziploc bag. This will help keep his luggage relatively organized, and will also remind your 8-year-old to put clean socks on every day. And while you’re packing clothes, always include extras, especially socks and underwear.
Dropping her off
When it’s finally time for your child to embark on her journey, make her transition as easy as possible. Whether sticking her on a bus or dropping her off outside her cabin, don’t linger. A long goodbye will only sadden the homesick girls and make the independent ones anxious. If she’s nervous, talk to her beforehand about how much fun she will have. So she won’t be alone after you leave, help her meet a bunkmate or counselor, and then say a quick goodbye.
Before you go, don’t be afraid to talk to her counselors. They are likely young, energetic college students who love being outdoors and working with kids. Their job is to ensure that each child has a safe and fun week, and in order to do this, they need to know everything about each camper. Allergies, asthma, bed-wetting, nightmares—this information goes to the nurse but may not make it to the counselors. Sharing any info about a recent event that may affect a child’s demeanor is also helpful.
Parents can usually predict if their child will be homesick. If you suspect your child may struggle, do everything you can to prepare him and keep the homesickness to a minimum.
If the camp offers an open house, take that opportunity to visit the property with your child to relieve some of the anxieties of going somewhere new. If visiting beforehand is not an option, peruse the web-
site together. Resist the urge to tell him how much you’ll miss him. Instead, ask him what he is most excited for, and together get pumped for a week of swimming, horseback riding, archery and s’mores.
Regardless of the fact that these days, most 9-year-olds own smart phones, most camps do not permit phone usage or Internet access. Never tell your camper that he can just pick up the phone and call any time he misses home; when his counselor tells him “No,” this will most likely result in “But my mom said!” and homesick tears.
An encouraging note or card can really brighten a camper’s day. Whether you mail it or tuck it away in a backpack, give your child some loving, written encouragement. Send a letter or small package two or three days before he leaves home so he can open it early in the week.
Most importantly, tell the counselors if you suspect that your child will have a hard time. They are seasoned professionals when it comes to homesick kids, and will likely have a few tricks up their sleeves to help him forget his sadness and have a blast.
Be prepared for a duffel bag that smells like something crawled in it and died. Between the lake water, sweat, and campfire smoke, nothing your child left with will return home smelling nice.
Older campers often suffer from the opposite of homesickness. Your daughter will probably spend hours texting camp friends and commenting on Facebook pictures, but will gradually transition back into home life.
Regardless of her age, your child most likely spent the week learning and belting out ridiculous camp songs, so be prepared to hear wacky, repetitive songs about a moose drinking juice and a snake wearing long johns.