First Time Campers: A Guide to Summer Camp

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The popularity of summer camp is soaring, with estimated attendance as high as 14 million campers each year. The good news is that there are more than 12,000 day and sleepaway camps in the U.S. That means parents have plenty of options, from specialty camps focusing on such activities as water activities, acting, or hockey, to traditional cabin camping in the woods or on beaches.

Before selecting a camp, start with determining whether your child is ready for camp. Most kids start sleepaway camp at age 7 or 8, while day camp caters to kids as young as 3. If you’re contemplating sleepaway camp, consider whether your youngster has spent the night away from home with friends or relatives and is comfortable with it.

Choosing a Summer Camp 

Once you’re confident that your child is ready and eager for camp, focus your search on ACA accredited camps. To qualify, a camp must meet more than 300 standards related to health, safety, and program quality.  But what type of camp will you choose?

Sleepaway or day camp? Sleepaway camps range from 1-8 weeks and offer a variety of supervised activities. Day camp is appropriate for kids who aren’t interested in or prepared for sleepaway camp. Many day camps also offer transportation to and from the site.

Specialty or traditional camp? Specialty camps focus on a particular theme or activity, such as waterfront activities, sports, or the arts. Traditional camps provide a more general experience including a mixture of crafts, sports, and outdoor games.

Understanding your child’s needs, interests, and personality can help focus the search. Is s/he looking for exposure to many new skills and activities (as you’d find in a traditional camp setting), or would s/he prefer to home in on one of his abilities (snorkeling, dance, kayaking?)

Get Your Kid Prepared for Camp 

Camp is a very intense experience because it’s 24 hours a day away from home. It’s different from going to school and coming home. It’s all about making new friends and having an entirely new daily routine.

Preparation for camp includes understanding your kid’s concerns and highlighting their strengths. A good idea is to review some of the things your child does well and explain how at camp they’ll have an opportunity to build on these skills and develop new ones.

Parents often have just as much trouble with separation as their kids do. Instead of sharing their own worries, it is better for parents to say, “We’re so excited for you and all the great things you’ll get to do at camp.”  You can make this even more persuasive by reviewing the camp’s website together and getting a sense of the activities offered.

Pack What the Camp Says to Pack

Most camps send a packing list to parents several weeks before the camp’s start date. The list usually contains must-haves (soap, shampoo) and must-nots (cell phones, electronic games). Pay close attention so that you include the necessities and don’t inadvertently pack what is often referred to as contraband.

Get that Medical Form Completed

Remember, your kid isn’t the only kid going to summer camp. If your child needs a physical in order to attend camp, make the appointment right away, before time slots fill up. If it’s just a matter of getting health forms signed by your pediatrician, get them signed promptly and send them in.

Labels are Your New Best Friend

Label absolutely everything with your child’s name. If their things aren’t labeled, it’s impossible for them to sort out their belongings when sharing living space with other campers. To make labeling easier, order printed fabric labels for clothing, towels, and bedding to make the job much easier.

Practice Sleeping Away From Home

First-time campers especially can benefit from a sleepover or two at a friend’s house before leaving for camp. It shows them that they can have fun and feel safe, even when you aren’t around,

Making It Easy to Make Friends 

Some kids worry about whether they’ll make friends at camp. Simple suggestions for ice-breaking conversation starters at camp include clothing that has a school name, the name of your hometown, or even a favorite sports team, movie title, or band. These are non-controversial topics and may provide unexpected and simple ways for kids to connect.

Anticipate Homesickness 

It’s okay to acknowledge that your kid might feel a little homesick at first. Be sure to let them know that this is normal; the counselors are used to this and are there to help. Word to the wise: make sure that your own worries or “kidsickness” doesn’t rub off on your child and make them more nervous than they already are.

Enjoy Some Rare “Me” Time

Dropping your kid off for camp can give you a rare, if fleeting, opportunity to do some adult things.  From sleeping in to reading a book, traveling, or cooking a dinner that’s a bit more sophisticated, it’s okay to pamper yourself, take some me time and do things that aren’t part of your normal routine when you child is home. Enjoy it while it lasts and don’t feel guilty: your child will be home before you know it.