by Christina DiMartino
Children mature differently, and each one comes from a unique combination of parenting styles and lifestyle culture. Depending on your child’s personality, one of the more perplexing questions you may face is deciding if he is ready for his first residential camp experience.
For insights, Parent USA City visited with Ann Sheets, past president and a current board member of the American Camp Association. Sheets is also the senior vice president of Camp Fire USA First Texas Council, a 75-year established residential and day camp in Fort Worth, Texas.
Sheets says her “gut feel” is that by age 10, most children are ready for a resident camp experience. Some children are ready sooner, while others may not be ready until they’re older.
“One important thing parents should consider is if their child has spent the night away from home, and how well he adapted to the experience,” says Sheets.
“Perhaps he has spent a weekend with grandparents, or enjoys frequent sleepovers at friends’ homes. Did he enjoy the experiences, or did they cause him tension and unrest? Those children who have had experiences sleeping away from home, and have enjoyed them, will adapt to resident camp situations better than those who have not.”
Children who have had day camp experiences are also more likely to have a good first residential camp experience. Sheets says that day camps help to teach children independence, and are a preparatory step for sleepover camp.
Camp Fire USA also offers family camping programs a couple of weekends during the year. Sheets says, “These are a good idea for families who want to help acclimate their kids to sleepover camp. This is especially true if there is any doubt that the child is emotionally ready.”
She also recommends that first-time campers go for a shorter, one-week program, especially if there is doubt about their ability to adjust.
Talk to your child
Sheet says communication with your child is extremely important.
“If in discussions about sleepover camp, your child is very hesitant—and perhaps doesn’t even want to talk about it—she isn’t ready,” she says.
“But parents also need to encourage their kids. Visiting the camp and sharing excitement over some of the things she will be experiencing is a great way to get her engaged with the idea.
“Sleepover camp is a different experience from any other experience a first-time camper has had,” she continues. “A child may feel she is ready, but as the day approaches, she may get apprehensive. In most cases, children just need a bit of reassurance.”
Out of the mouths of babes
It’s also important to talk to your child about the details of the camp. Sheets recalls one first-time camper who complained that her bed at camp didn’t have a box-spring.
“Tell your child what the accommodations at camp are like,” she advises. “Tell her if the beds are cots, or if there is a bathroom in her cabin. Also let her know how many kids will be sharing her cabin.
“It’s very important to discuss the camp’s schedule. If your child is used to sleeping late on non-school days, tell her that she will be getting up early and going to breakfast. Explain what kind of food she can expect to eat and what type of activities she’ll be participating in. If your child has a friend who has been to camp, let them visit and talk about it.”
Parents should emphasize the wonderful and new experiences their children will have at camp. Sheets noted one first-time camper who lived in a major city. During an evening campfire, the child looked up at the sky, and then turned to her counselor and said, “So, this is where they keep the stars.”
Once at camp
Sheets reminds parents that homesickness is normal, even for kids who are emotionally mature and demonstrate independence. She says the number of kids who go home before the end of their camp program isn’t known, but it is a very small percentage.
“Once your child is in camp, it’s important to continue to show enthusiasm for his experience,” she says.
“Parents should write encouraging letters, and keep the correspondence upbeat about what’s going on at home. If a parent persistently tells her child how much he is missed, he may feel guilty enough to want to go home.
“Kids who think they are ready sometimes get apprehensive after a few days at camp, but a nice letter from their parents will usually help them get over the homesickness.”
Sheets suggests that parents turn to the American Camp Association’s comprehensive website for parents, campparents.org, for information on a wealth of topics related to first-time campers.
Christina DiMartino has been a freelance and assignment writer since 1985. She is a researcher, interviewer, writer, editor, and manuscript collaborator with a repertoire of clients from around the world.
Photo courtesy of American Camp Association: YMCA Camp Willson – YMCA of Central Ohio, Bellefontaine, Ohio