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Preparing Your Child for Sleep-Away Camp

Hilary Benson

Published on: February 13, 2008

Preparing your child for sleep-away campFor many children, camping away from home offers the first taste and test of independence. There are ups — new friends and fun activities — but there are sometimes downs, too, such as homesickness. Those downsides can be minimized with a little preparation. Think of this suggested timeline as a recipe for your resident camper’s success.

Three to six months before camp

Choosing the right camp: Sleep-away camps come in all shapes and sizes. Some focus on sports. Some are affiliated with a church or religious group. Others are theme-based, geared toward young nature lovers or budding musicians, for example. For the first-time resident camper, most sessions last one week, though some camps — such as the YMCA’s Camp Seymour in Pierce County — offer a half-week option for younger children (those entering second or third grade).

Involve your child in the decision-making. In a report on preventing homesickness, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises: “Taking part in even the smallest decisions will increase perceptions of control. By contrast, feeling forced to leave home without input into the decision often increases homesickness intensity.” You might also consider sending your child with a buddy, as having a companion often eases initial camp jitters.

Ask plenty of questions of your camp, such as “How many counselors will be with my child?” Other suggested questions can be found on the American Camp Association’s website.

Get to know your camp: Once your family has chosen the perfect camp, the real fun can begin. Study the orientation materials and Web site with your child, and talk to camp alums and staff members. Getting familiar with the program can help you reduce your child’s anxiety.

Try to attend the camp’s open house or sampler day. Better yet, West Seattle mom Amy Daly-Donovan recommends family camp to introduce the child to the new location. Her family’s weekend stay at the YMCA’s Camp Colman in Gig Harbor/Hood Canal helped the kids feel instantly comfortable during their sleep-away week there later that summer. “Shea was very excited to go. She wasn’t nervous or afraid at all,” says Daly-Donovan of her 10-year-old daughter.

One to three months before camp

Practice for camp: Bellevue pediatrician Jeannie Larsen recommends a “practice run”: Have your child stay with grandparents or a family friend for at least one or two nights to introduce her to feelings of separation. If that is not possible, even setting up a tent in the living room and pretending the child is camping can be helpful. “It is just something that is a little different from the child’s normal routine,” Larsen says. Ideally, a stay away from home would not include calls from home or email contact with parents.

Introduce related activities: If the camp is a sports camp, the child will likely feel most comfortable if he has played the sport before. Short of a specific focus, many summer camps involve time around water. Any camp accredited by the American Camp Association will do a swim test on the first day to rank skill level, according to Camp Seymour’s Program Director Scott Jackson. And while camps have clear safety guidelines around water, Jackson says it does not hurt to enroll a child in swim lessons beforehand as one more means of building confidence.

Plan for changes: Jackson suggests that parents help their children adapt to new foods. “The kids who eat school lunches are more open to camp food. They think, ‘I can eat that salad bar or some fruit over here.’ It’s the kid who only eats macaroni and cheese or is on a three-food rotation that really has trouble,” Jackson says.

Then there is what Jackson calls “friend building.” Parents can use the topic of camp and new acquaintances to remind their kids that while it is OK to laugh at funny things, one should not laugh at others. Or perhaps remind them to always play fair, take turns and be a good sport. Camp gives children a clean slate, says Jackson. “It is a chance to make friends outside their normal social group.”

One to two weeks before camp

Buy items on the checklist: Ten-year-old Lily of Mercer Island assuaged some of her pre-camp jitters by getting organized. Buying a new sleeping bag, picking up mosquito repellant and other items she did not already have, then sorting them into different piles before packing day kept her calm as the days ticked down to her departure.

Practice correspondence: Lily and her family also addressed and stamped envelopes they would be sending to each other during their time apart. Keep in mind the time it might take for letters to be delivered. Lily’s camp in British Columbia was far enough away that family members sent letters even before she left, to ensure she got them before her two-week stay was up. Also, confirm your camp’s email policy. Some allow parents to email, but will only deliver those messages once a day.

The night before camp

Set realistic expectations: Even as adults, we know the night before something new can be terrifying. Be prepared for your child to ask a lot of questions, even if they cover ground you’ve discussed before. But be careful of what you say. Well-intentioned parents will only make a child more nervous by saying things like “I hope you’ll be OK,” or “I sure hope the food there is decent.”

A psychologist and consultant to the American Camp Association says that parents need to emphasize that it is normal, not strange, to experience homesickness. But do not dwell on the negative. As the association points out on its Web site, “Your confidence in a positive experience will be contagious.”

Hilary Benson is a freelance writer and mother of three.

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