Summer camp from the inside out


Preparing your kid for camp from a counselor's point of view By Graham Johnston

Illustration by Marc Stopeck/Chicago Parent  





Summer camp: A magical week where someone else will not only take your children, but supervise them, keep them safe, feed them and entertain them with canoeing, archery and camp songs.

Sounds great, if you are a parent.

But how do children deal with being dropped into a foreign world where they suddenly have to worry what nine other people want to do? Where the water tastes funny, and both the bathrooms and the cabins are anything but private.

For any number of weeks, children have to find a way to deal with meals they don't like, kids they've never met, a college student who rarely showers and, above all, homesickness.

There are a lot of great things about summer camp. It can change a child's life. Jeff Lorenz, director of Swift Nature Camp in Minong, Wis., whole-heartily believes almost any child who comes to camp with a problem can be helped. Whether it be confidence, discipline or interacting with peers.

"We can have a really good impact and make them a whole lot better," Lorenz says. He understands the value and impact a camp counselor can have on a child. He even remembers his first counselor, John Cotton, from 40 years ago when Lorenz was 7.

I've been going to camp for five years-three of those as a counselor. So it's no strain on my memory to remember back to my first counselors, Kent and Tim. I learned enough to know camp is a great opportunity for children. I also realize how much the experiences shaped me.

But preparing your child goes beyond packing the duffel bag. Camp is about compromise.

"Every kid in camp will have to adjust to something," says Jeff Tremmel, program director at Camp MacLean in Burlington, Wis. From the moment the minivan drives off, the new camper's attitude has to change, adjustments have to be made. And the faster kids learn to be flexible, the better the camp experience will be.

Here are a few of the things I have learned and lived through. Maybe they will help when you send your child off for a change of life, not just a change of scenery.

Inevitable homesickness

Adjusting to new people and a new place, coupled with the realization that parents are not just a phone call away, are the right ingredients for homesickness.

"Seventy-five percent of kids at camp have some kind of homesickness," which is completely normal, says Tremmel. Camp MacLean allots the most of the time in its counselor training to homesickness prevention and dealing with the possible onset.

"The worst part of homesickness is when parents can't handle it," Lorenz says. Counselors are trained to keep campers away from telephones. It's hard for parents not to race to camp if their child is not having a good time. Especially if they hear a tear-jerking SOS, "I wanna come home."

Tremmel says if you assume there are 100 kids in a camp, 80 of them will be fine with just preventative measures. The other 20 may require a little one-on-one time with their counselor. Finally, four or five of the 20 might need help from an adult staff member. Sending a child home is the last resort.

Most camps believe it's better to try and work with a homesick camper at camp. Tremmel believes only about one or two in a 1,000 campers suffer enough to be sent home.

Counselors also know homesickness breeds in down time. Children sit and think about missing their bed, their favorite toy, even their cat, as one camper confessed to me in tears once. For those reasons, the camp schedule is jam-packed. As long as kids are doing something, they don't think about home.

Sometimes the level and the type of activities at camp is as much a struggle for kids as anything else.

It is shocking news to them that there is zero time for video games, TV or unescorted time. The schedule keeps children busy, always keeps them active and tires them out for the good of the counselors who are trying to enforce a 10 p.m. bedtime.

The first-time experiences lead Swift Nature Camp to create the First Camper Program, tailored for children who have never attended a sleep away or resident camp. It lasts 12 days and is for 6- through 12-year-olds. With a staff-to-camper ratio of almost one to two, campers receive more personal attention than a normal cabin with two counselors to 10 campers.

The added attention means campers can be kept busier and more closely monitored for the warning signs of homesickness. Trust me, it's very hard to watch 10 children all at once. Just when you're tending to one, another is causing a problem. A counselor watching two children always knows where they are, what they're doing and how they feel. But even with that level of personal attention, the counselor never becomes a camper's personal servant or chef.

Chances are every camper gets a little homesick at camp but he or she isn't going to remember it by the end.

Serving food and discipline

If it's 8 a.m, this must be breakfast. Noon is lunch and 5 p.m. dinner, which makes three square meals.

There is a big myth about camp food being some type of gray sloppy gruel. The truth is there's nothing to fear. Lorenz's camp serves kid food, such as hot dogs, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese and chicken nuggets. For the camper whose appetite isn't whet by that delicious menu, Lorenz has discovered peanut butter and jelly-the cure for any camper's empty stomach.

Parents should feel free to contact a camp and ask about its food menus. You can even try preparing some of the food if your child is curious.

After the meal comes clean up. Maybe these children were accustomed to the hired help clearing the dishes. Maybe their family always ate meals in restaurants. Or maybe the words "clear" and "the table" never connected in their vocabulary. This inevitably leads to a few stand-offs-sitting at the table until it is clean rather than playing basketball outside.

That, of course, is one of the least creative punishments a counselor might dole out. We don't have the great arsenal that parents are afforded, such as grounding or taking away TV, but time outs work in the woods.

We like the logic that the only thing worse than not having fun is watching other people have fun in your deprivation. So a child who violates the rules by running to the archery range to be the first to shoot will be sentenced to the end of the line.

One of the most creative punishments I saw and used was to have the camper hug a tree. Bear with me here. After the camper does something he or she shouldn't-running, swearing or throwing rocks-the counselor tells the camper to hug a tree. The slight embarrassment, especially for boys, in front of friends often is enough to curb little problems.

On that note

The challenge of getting campers to stop doing something bad is rivaled only by trying to get them to do something they don't want to do. In my experience, that thing is singing.

Younger campers are often too shy to sing. Older campers find it too girlish, which often leaves camp counselors (me) singing camp songs at the top of their lungs to a group of silent children. Younger campers find it amusing to watch their counselors sing and dance like fools, although eventually, you can count on them to feel a need to join in. Older campers are not as kind, I learned from a group of teenage boys this summer. They stared at me while I was singing with a look of disgust. A few days into the session, they discovered girls loved singing camp songs. From then on, my boys were always up for campfire sing-a-longs, provided we were located within ear shot and eye sight of the girls.

There's no telling how each camp session is going to turn out for every kid. Camp isn't like school. You can't say kids are ready at a certain age. Every child is different. Some 8-year-old can march off to three weeks of camp while a 12-year-old might crumble on the first night. Lorenz advises parents preparing kids for camp to:

• Talk about the different adjustments children will have to make and role play to help them through the different situations that might occur. What will he or she do if a bathing suit is lost (even though every camper should pack two)? Who can your child go to for help? What will your child do if someone is picking on him or her?

• Make sure campers' and parents' expectations are realistic. Camp is not non-stop fun, 15 hours a day. Not every child will be pleased at the same time. Camp counselors do their best to keep everyone happy. Maybe that means archery because eight out of 10 want to. Or not telling scary stories at night because we secretly know three kids are very upset by them.

Always remember that camp is about your child. It's about so much more than canoeing or swimming or arts and crafts.

Camp is about making a shy child able to stand in front of camp for a funny skit, showing an only child how to respect others, teaching a teenager to be a leader to those around him.

Every camper does have to adjust to something at camp. They have to adjust to themselves.


Graham Johnston is writer from the Chicago area and a student at University of Missouri.



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