It’s that time of year when you begin to think about “gasp” summer and what you’re going to do with the kids during the long, hot days of summer. When the kids were little, you splashed with them at the neighborhood pool. You schlepped them to half-day sports programs offered through the local community center or you took them to the library, to nature centers, or to touching museums where they could explore and wear themselves out for a few hours. You arranged “play dates.” You took them on outings.
But your babies are no longer babies and the sage wisdom of prominent child psychologist, Michael Thompson, rings in your ears.
“You cannot make them happy (if you try too hard they become whiners); you cannot give them self-esteem and confidence (those come from their own accomplishments); you cannot pick friends for them and micro-manage their social lives, and finally you cannot give them independence.”
When your kids reach a certain age and developmental stages, your kids can only develop certain life skills if you place them in empowering, independence-building settings like overnight summer camp.
Up until now, they haven’t been ready. You haven’t been ready; and you’re still not sure if your kids are there yet. How can you tell?
Signs your child is ready for overnight camp
Can your child do sleepovers? According to Dr. Michael Thompson, this is a good indicator. If your child is willing to sleep over at friends, at grandma’s house, or with cousins, it means your child has a willingness to leave home. When this readiness happens is child-specific but the average age range, according to the American Camp Association, is between the ages of seven and nine.
Does your child relish the idea of making his own decisions? We’re not talking about where to live and what bills to pay. These are simple choices. What will I wear today? Will I eat peanut butter and jelly or the camp eggs and oatmeal? Will I sit through the campfire ghost stories even though I’m afraid or will I hide in my sleeping bag? Being away at overnight camp means that a child must be comfortable making fundamental decisions. Decision-making is an initial sign of independence and overnight camp builds on that independence.
Can your child take care of herself? The basics, I mean. Brushing teeth. Getting dressed. Bathing. Making beds. Putting about laundry. That sort of thing. If the answer is yes, your child can probably do fine in an overnight camp setting. If not, it may be too soon.
Is your child enthusiastic camp discussions, about the unknown of being away from home, of meeting new people and trying new experiences? If your child actively talks about the unknowns of camp and is willing to give it a try or is willing to deal with the inevitable homesickness, that’s a good sign. It means that your child is becoming aware of his insecurities but has a wiliness to face them. Keep in mind, even if your child seems worried or anxious, encourage your child to talk, help her identify the source of the anxiety, and give her tools to deal with the anxiety. Homesickness and separation anxiety are normal when a child goes away to overnight camp. After a week, those feelings usually subside. If your child knows how to handle those feelings when she’s anxious, she will mature from the camp experience and come home more confident.
What camp is right for your child?
The point to sending your child away to a sleepaway camp is so they can develop maturity, independence, can learn cooperation, interpersonal skills, and a whole host of other benefits. It’s not so that your child can be insulated and pampered. When you pick an overnight camp, keep that in mind. Your child won’t develop life-altering skills if their every whim is being indulged at camp. They need to get dirty. They need to be pushed out of their comfort zone. And they need to do it “off the grid,” away from you, away from social media, their smart phone, and school.
You also need to research the right camp in terms of accreditation and references. The American Camp Association recommends you consider the following factors when choosing a camp:
Does the camp have a history? New camps might have newer facilities and “bells and whistles” but an older, established camp with staff that has worked for the organization for a long time says more about the camp. It means stability. It also means that the camp values its employees. An older camp should also have loyal families who have sent one or more children or generations of family members to the same camp. Ask for references. Also ask to talk with a staff member who has worked for the camp for a long time.
What is the camp’s philosophy? Is it activity driven, centered around leadership development, focused on building communication and collaboration? Make sure the philosophy is one you’re comfortable with.
Does the camp have a strong community? Does the camp foster teamwork, community, and inclusion? These skills are life skills and you want your child to learn that collaboration, teamwork, relationship building and communication.
Does the camp staff have longevity and credibility? Look for a camp with low turnover rates for counselors and staff members. Staff members should have references, should be well-trained, and should have had a background check.
Can your child make choices about activities? A child who learns how to make choices learns independence. Choose a camp that encourages decision making.
Does the camp have a communication plan for the parents? If you child is a camper, it’s not in his best interest if you call the camp daily, if you demand to be in touch with your child. A child sent to overnight camp will not form meaninful relationships, will not learn independence, self confidence if you the parent are always involved in the mix. On the other hand, the camp should have an open channel of communication, a way for you to see what’s happening periodically. Many camps now post photos of campers on a daily basis. A picture of smiling camper does much to allay an anxious parent..
Is the camp accredited? Accreditation through the American Camp Association is more important than you realize. It means that a camp operates according to certain standards, is accountable, and transparent. Look for a camp with a high accreditation. The American Camp Association maintains a list of camps and their accreditation. Mysummercamps.com posts reviews by parents and former campers.
After you’ve done the research, factor in other wants and needs.
Does your child have special needs? Does your child have special needs? ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Tourette’s, cancer, for example? There are many camps specifically geared toward campers with disabilities, disorders, and illnesses. Many all-around camps can accommodate campers with special needs as well. If you find it overwhelming to sift through the thousands of overnight camps, go through a camp advisory service such as The Camp Experts or The Camp Connection. Many advisory services are free and can pinpoint overnight camps that best fit your child’s needs.
Does your child have special talents that you want him to develop? Is she a dancer or singer? Does she want to be in theatre? Is he into gymnastics or sports? Is computer programming his passion? Sending your child to a specialty overnight camp can help your child foster friendships with others who share her passion, can teach your child a discipline or a mastery of a skill that she was unable to conquer during the school year.
Is religious affiliation important? Would you prefer a Jewish camp, one affiliated with the Catholic Diocese or a Protestant house of worship? If religious observance is important, there are many camps that are affiliated with a religious institution. American Camp Association, BunkMates, and endorsing agencies for your house of worship as well as local community centers can provide directories.
If you still aren’t sure, read Michael Thompson’s book, Homesick and Happy. It’s an insightful yet light-hearted narrative that addresses the importance of camp in a child’s overall development.