It’s nearly summer, and the family calendar is likely filling to the brim with picnics, barbecues and day camps. But what about that hallmark of summer — the overnight sleepaway experience?
Read more from the author Malia Jacobson in her book "Ready, Set, Sleep" — now available on Amazon.
From campouts to sleepaway camp, overnight adventures away from home build confidence, self-reliance and yes, the all-important grit, per resilience researcher and author Michael Ungar, Ph.D.
But don’t send kids packing quite yet. A little prep can help ensure that their summer overnights spark warm memories for years to come.
Preschool: Over the river and through the woods
Tiny tots may be years away from sleeping in a rustic camp cabin, but sleepaway experiences are still possible. What’s more, they’re beneficial for the entire brood. Kids building confidence while parents enjoy uninterrupted sleep and some self-care? Sounds like a win.
So even though sleepaway camp doesn’t exist for toddlers, spending a night or two away from home — in the care of grandparents or other close kin — is a good first step toward building confidence and sleepaway skills.
Once you’ve identified a relative or close friend who’s willing to host your child for a night, set a date a few weeks in advance. Mark the big day on a calendar so your child can help count the days. In the meantime, pay a few visits to the home with your child so they can get used to the new environment. Show them the space where they’ll sleep on their big night at Grandma’s.
Now’s the time to take stock of potential safety issues, such as unprotected electrical sockets and steep stairs, and offer to bring over outlet covers, a portable child gate and any other tot-proofing gear that’s needed.
Another potential hazard: nighttime diaper duty. If your little one isn’t toilet-trained, or if training is in process, talk over diaper details with your relative or friend. Make sure your child knows where and how to use the bathroom at the relative’s house — and that your relative understands your child’s cues for “potty” (not everyone is fluent in toddler-ese or infant sign language, after all). On the big day, send along a mattress cover and extra bedding with your child in case of an accident.
Of course, a successful sleepaway experience involves actual sleep. Encourage sweet dreams by providing familiarity and routine away from home; kids’ brains are primed to associate their normal bedtime routine with sleep. Ask your relative to stick to your child’s regular bedtime (writing it down never hurts) and re-create at least a few elements from your child’s sleeping space — and keep the space dark, cool and quiet.
If your child’s bedroom features blackout curtains and a white-noise machine, bring those along (a flat bedsheet can sub for curtains in a pinch). Don’t forget your child’s favorite pajamas, security object and bedtime story.
When it’s time for the drop-off, deliver hugs and kisses and say a quick goodbye; prolonged parental exits can increase separation anxiety. Then, enjoy your night off!
Elementary: ‘Hello Mother, hello Father’
Elementary school-age kids are often eager for their first sleepaway camp experience, with good reason. The benefits of camp endure long after the fleeting days of summer: Per the American Camp Association, 70 percent of campers report increased confidence, 69 percent keep in touch with camp pals and two-thirds pick up long-term hobbies.
Although kids can start sleepaway camp as young as 5 years old, most local sleepaway camps accept campers at age 7 or 8.
Before your child turns 7, Bonney Lake mom and former camp counselor Amanda Wedvik Curb recommends day camps or very short camp experiences instead of a traditional week at camp. “It depends on your child’s maturity level and whether he’s slept away from you before,” Curb says. “Some children are very independent, though! You know your child best.”
So, how do you know if yours is ready? First, and perhaps most importantly: Do they want to go? (My eldest politely declined sleepaway camp until age 10, but loved it thereafter.) If your child’s friends and siblings are jazzed about camp, but your child seems lukewarm, don’t push it. Encourage sleepovers with relatives and close friends and enjoy family campouts and vacations; wait for them to come around to the idea.
Another sign of readiness: Can your child manage their own health care reasonably well? That means taking care of bathroom needs, caring for braces and retainers, remembering to drink enough water throughout the day and applying bug spray and sunscreen as needed. Although the camp’s staff will probably manage any meds your child needs, they’ll still need to confidently advocate for themselves in the presence of adults they don’t know.
If your child seems confident and eager for camp, take the plunge and sign up — with a pal or two, if possible. Camp counselors generally recommend letting your camper pack their own bag, so they know exactly where to find that last clean pair of socks when they need it.
Tween and teen years: Bring on the s’mores
In middle school and beyond, kids are ready to embrace the summer campout. Unlike little ones, kids older than 10 have the stamina for longer hikes, know enough to stay out of the campfire and can actually help you with camp chores (in theory, anyway). Sneaky bonus: Many state campgrounds feature notoriously weak or nonexistent cell and wi-fi service, so your wired kid will have to unplug from devices and connect with you.
But what about actually sleeping under the stars? Even for older kids, sleeping in an environment that’s vastly different can make it hard to nod off. First, there’s the light factor; Pacific Northwest summers feature notoriously late sunsets, which usually means later-than-normal bedtimes. Then there’s the temperature. Even in July, nighttime temps can nip down to the 40s. Add in strange noises and lumpy bedding, and you may have a tired tween, come morning.
To encourage better sleep during campouts, start by picking a campground far from the highway or the main campground “loop.” It will be quieter than the more centrally located sites.
Then, plan from the ground up: Invest in self-inflating sleeping pads. Be sure sleeping bags are approved for the temperatures you’ll experience; if you’re still rolling up hand-me-down sleeping bags from your own youth, consider upgrading.
Next, head off camping insomnia by packing layered sleepwear and thick socks. And accept that for kids, camping is like a sleepover: Sleepaway doesn’t always equal sleep. Expect later bedtimes and less sleep throughout the trip, as well as fatigue hangover afterward — but know that the memories outweigh the tiredness, without a doubt.