Last Summer, I started my daughter at the same camp I attended, then worked at, every year between the ages of 10 and 19. My camp memories were magical and integral to my childhood, and I wanted her to have the same experiences I did of having weeks completely disconnected from screens and family schedules; where playing outside, acting silly, meeting new friends, and learning important lifelong skills like basket-weaving and ultimate frisbee were the only thing on the agenda.
I'll admit I was a bit crazy about making my camp dreams for her a reality, signing her up for the day-camp program the first day registration opened on the first year she was old enough to attend. At 5, she was still three years away from aging into overnight camp, and I'll admit that part of my plan was that, after a few years of day camp, she'd be chomping at the bit to join the big kids at sleepaway camp, despite her slightly fearful disposition.
She loved camp as much as I hoped she would and returned again this year, reuniting with camp friends and counselors she met last year and coming home at 3:30 p.m. each day utterly exhausted. Although the decision on whether to ultimately keep her in day camp or send her up to the big leagues at 8 years old is still a couple of years away (the average age for a first overnight camp experience is between 7 and 9, according to the American Camp Association), it's already on my mind.
If you're in a similar situation, here are some things to consider before making the decision about whether your child is ready for overnight camp or not.
- Are they comfortable sleeping in places other than home? A child who regularly has overnights with friends or family members away from Mom and Dad is probably going to be fine, but a child who has a serious preference for their own bed might not be ready.
- How long is the camp? While my daughter's camp only offers week-long sessions, some camps have two- to three-night options. Do your research (the American Camp Association or Summer Camps are solid places to start) to find a camp that's a good fit for your child.
- How easily do they make new friends? Is your child outgoing and comfortable around strangers? Then sending them solo is a good option, but for shy or more reluctant children, it might be best to pair them up with a close friend for their first camp experience.
- How independent and self-reliant is your child? Campers are usually expected to dress and groom themselves and keep their bunks clean and organized. If your child isn't capable of that, now's the time to start practicing.
- How comfortable are you with the camp's staff and supervisors? My own camp experiences helped me feel super comfortable handing my child off to her counselors on day one (the current camp director was on staff when I was a camper 20 years ago!). If you're going into a new camp, however, reaching out to the staff to express any concerns will help you gauge their responsiveness and level of involvement and empathy. Most camps will allow you to take a tour in advance, so feel free to ask.
- What is the camp's policy on family communication and dealing with homesickness? Good overnight camps will have very specific policies about how they want families to communicate with their campers (in my day, it was written letters only; now they allow email) and how they want you to discuss and deal with homesickness. Read up on them in advance and trust that after dealing with thousands of campers throughout the years, the camp probably knows best.