Food fights, hilarious pranks, young summer crushes: these are romantic images of the overnight summer camps of your childhood and countless movies. Toss in a few sleepless nights and mosquito bites, and suddenly reality hits you: Your own kids may soon be old enough to head to an overnight summer camp for kids themselves.
Are they ready? Are you ready?
Many overnight or "sleep-away" summer camps are open to children as young as 6 years old, i.e., those going into first grade the following fall. But Bellevue pediatrician Jeanne Larsen's first words of advice to parents are, "Just because you can, doesn't mean you should." Just because your child fits within age guidelines, does not mean he or she is necessarily ready. "They need to be old enough to have good judgment," says Larsen. "If a scary situation comes up, they need to know how to cope."
Some overnight camps, like the Girl Scouts' Camp River Ranch in Carnation, offer "partners" camps. These shorter four-day overnight camp experiences allow the girls to camp with their "favorite adult." Day camps can be another first step. The child gets the kayaking, crafts and "Kumbaya," then goes home to his own bed for the night.
Separation anxiety or just not ready?
River Ranch Camp Director Marcy Mastel says one way to tell if your child is ready for overnight camp is, quite simply, if they ask to go. Another litmus test is when a child can stay for several days with a relative or friend, without his parents around, and not be anxious. "If they're hesitant at slumber parties, or if they're calling you to come get them, those are signals they might not be ready," says Mastel.
Even a child who is mature enough to go to an overnight camp can expect to be nervous. The American Camp Association's website advises, "One of the most important things for parents and doctors to recognize, and to say before any separation, is that it's normal, not strange, to feel homesick." The site draws on research showing that 90 percent of children attending an overnight summer camp feel some level of homesickness during the stay.
Is age a factor?
A child's age is an important factor. Larsen, who has a 6-year-old daughter of her own, says she would not feel comfortable sending her own child to a resident camp just yet, because she does not have that critical understanding of time. "If I told Sarah she was going away for a week, she wouldn't know what that really means," Larsen says.
Age is not the only factor, however. "I've seen kids who are good at 7 years old, and 14-year-olds who are crying their eyes out," Mastel says. Larsen adds that, even within the same family, children may be ready at very different times. Just because Johnny loved his week away at an overnight camp at age 9 doesn't mean that little Billy will feel the same way.
In a recent issue of the medical journal Pediatrics, authors of a report on homesickness write that children fare best when they feel in control. "By contrast, feeling forced to leave home without input into the decision often increases homesickness intensity," the report says. Allowing your child to help choose the camp or particular session as well as helping him learn about the new environment can boost his confidence and ease fears.
Is the parent too ready?
Indeed, while parents like Larsen are leery of sending their young ones off to an overnight camp at age 6, other problems arise when parents are too ready for a child to go away to camp. Perhaps a parent is imposing their own fond camp memories on their children. Or maybe they're viewing resident camp as a sort of summer child care.
"If the child has been shuffled from camp to camp, and they are on their fourth camp, then they might just get tired of it," says Mastel.
Pack a little love from home
When it's time to get ready for an overnight camp, Larsen recommends that children pack "transitional objects." For a 6-year-old, that might mean a favorite blanket to sleep with. For a 9-year-old, it might be a lucky coin or action figure they can keep in their pocket. "These objects bring comfort and make the child feel closer to home," Larsen says.
When all is said and done, the best indicator that the overnight camp was the right choice at the right time might not come until the end of camp, when your child is begging to go back for more.
Hilary Benson is a freelance journalist with three children. Her work has appeared in ParentMap, Seattle Magazine and on KINGTV.
Tips for helping your child get ready for overnight camp
Practice overnight time away from home. Whether at a friend's or relative's home, a child should do a trial run of at least one overnight (preferably more!) visit without a parent present.
Plan your correspondence. By email or snail mail, you and your children should agree on how often you will be in touch. Address and stamp envelopes in which kids can mail their letters home. Overnight camps usually discourage phone calls.
Learn about the overnight camp. Use the camp's orientation booklets, website, counselors or alumni to research the environment beforehand. Share this information with your child.
Choose your words carefully. While it is helpful to say, "It's normal to be homesick," it is not helpful for kids to hear how much you will miss them. Don't say things like, "I hope you'll be OK," which instills fear. Instead, be enthusiastic and optimistic!
For more information, go to the American Camp Association's website.