While most overnight camps welcome kids as young as 6, how do you know if your child is ready to go? Sending them to overnight camp is a big decision that requires having a level of comfort with an endless list of questions to which you may not know the answers. Will my child make friends? What if they get homesick? Will they like the food?
Since what works for one child might not be the best fit for another, we asked some experts—camp directors, mental health professionals and parents—for advice.
Did your child attend day camp?
If your child loves day camp and begins to talk about overnight camp, this is a good indicator they may be ready for the next phase of camp.
Beth Miller, director of city day camping for the JCC Chicago, says that day camps begin the process of teaching kids how to be independent.
“At day camp, kids learn everything from how to change in a locker room to how to seek help from a counselor or friend,” she says. “Camp is good practice for letting kids make decisions for themselves and discovering a little more about who they are.”
Has your child spent the night away from home?
Most experts agree that a good separation test is a first sleepover, or having your child stay the night at grandma and grandpa’s. Provide the assurance that everything will be fine and encourage independence, but offer the option to call you at 3 a.m. if they need comforting or a pick up.
Is your child physically ready?
Can your child complete basic tasks like bathing, self-dressing and brushing their teeth and washing their face? While counselors are your child’s caretakers at overnight camp, they are there to remind and coach them to complete these tasks, not do it for them. If you are thinking about sending your child to camp but they have not quite mastered these skills, they can be good activities to work towards throughout the year.
Can you test the waters?
Many camps offer the opportunity to ease into the overnight experience with camp preview days, where kids can experience camp in session to see what it looks like. Families can walk through the facilities, participate in activities and speak with staff and current campers. There are also a number of shorter duration sleep-away camps (three to five nights) designed to introduce first-time campers to the concept of being away from home, with the hope that they’ll feel comfortable and return for a longer stay the following summer.
“My daughter spent her best summers at camp, and I attribute that to the fact we first sent her to a three-day, four-night overnight camp to try first,” says mom Lindsay Bertoncini. “There, my daughter became comfortable with the facility and the idea of being away from home.”
Do your research
With endless options for overnight camp, including sports, wilderness, the arts, etc., finding the right camp for your child can be a daunting task. The American Camp Association is a great place to start. It provides a database of ACA accredited camps that can be searched by age, interest, location, session duration, housing structure and more.
“I advise parents to call the camp they are interested in, and ask the staff every question that they can think of,” says Colette Marquardt, executive director of the American Camp Association Illinois. “I also see value in attending open houses and talking to parent references that the camp can provide.”
Let your camper be an active participant
From day one when the subject of overnight camp is brought up, involve your child. Let them be a part of the camp selection process so they can feel a sense of ownership and pride about their upcoming experience. Continue to build up the excitement for camp by finding things you and your camper can do together, such as shopping for camp supplies or packing their trunk.
“Kids often take a cue from their parents,” Marquardt says. “If you’re nervous, that’s how they’ll be. But if you talk about it as a positive experience and an adventure, kids will usually attach on to that belief.”
Thompson agrees that supporting the decision to send a child to camp is the best thing an anxious parent can do for their child. “If you are going to do it, make sure to convey the belief to your child that he or she can do it,” he says. “Kids often lessen parents’ anxiety by being capable.”
Prepare your child for homesickness
Ninety-seven percent of first-time campers will experience some level of homesickness. The vast majority are mild and tend to resolve within a few days or weeks, says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a renowned child psychologist and author of “Homesick and Happy: How Time Away from Parents Can Help a Child Grow.”
Once parents have made the concrete decision that a child is physically and emotionally ready for camp, Thompson advises gradually broaching the topic of being homesick.
“Children don’t want advice from their parents,” says Thompson. “Ask them what a comfort to them would be if they missed home. Is it a teddy bear? Is it talking to a counselor or the camp director? Empower your child to hear themselves coming up with their own coping strategies.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.