Preparing Happy Campers

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By the time most kids reach the age of 8, they are ready for their first overnight summer camp adventure.  Here’s help for navigating the process and ensuring your child has a festive and memorable time.

Going to a sleepover camp is a milestone for children. Kids will make fast friends and experience new ideas. They’ll eat foods that they would have never tried at home and develop more self-confidence. Sleepover camps gives kids a great opportunity to learn new life skills, too. If your child is anxious about the thought of going away this summer, do some thinking, planning and talking now, so you can enrich your child’s experience before it even begins.

Is Your Child Ready?

Parents will generally know when their child is ready for a sleepover camp. Every child’s temperament is different, so age should not be the determining factor.  “The parents should look at their child’s attitude toward being away from home as well as their child’s personality factors,” says Frank Sileo, Ph.D., author of Bug Bites and Campfires: A Story for Kids About Homesickness (Health Press NA Inc.; $14.95)

Just because you went to a specific camp as a child does not mean this camp will fit your child. A parent needs to evaluate whether this camp will meet your child’s disposition and talents.  Parents should never force their child to attend a camp.

Which Camp is Right?

There are various camp locator organizations found on the Internet such as campparents.org, summercamp.org or campsearch.com where parents can investigate a variety of camps. Talk among friends and family members to find out about different camps for your child. You can also check with local sources like the newspaper, family magazines, and parks and recreation offices in your community.

It is important for your child to be part of the selection process in order for him to be on board with the choice. What special interests does your child have?  Explore different camp websites, pamphlets and brochures with your child.  Have discussions with your child about his goals for camp.  What does he want to do and get from camp?  “When children are involved, even in a small way in the decision-making process, they will experience increased feelings of control,” says Sileo.  They will be more comfortable with the final decision.

Check out the camp with your child and speak with the camp director to get a feel for the camp culture.  Visit the camp and look for cleanliness of facilities and interaction with children, find out how the staff is selected and what criteria is used.

Talk About Apprehensions

It is common for most kids to experience homesickness at some time during their camp stay.  Before camp, talk with your kid and let him know it’s OK to miss home and the family.  “Children often feel they are the only ones experiencing a negative feeling,” says Sileo.  This gives him permission and helps the adjustment.

Role playing helps kids think through situations that they have not experienced before like finding a flashlight at night to run to the bathroom or asking his counselor for help.  When parents provide simple life applications, kids will become more confident to handle new situations.

Take a Friend?

Going to camp with a friend has its pros and cons.  Attending camp with a friend may help a shyer child take the step of attending a sleepover camp.  However, your child may cling to his friend and not explore all the opportunities at camp if he’s with a buddy.

Build the Excitement

Tell your child about the fun that he’ll have at camp. He’ll learn new crafts and play new games.  “Your confidence in a positive experience will be contagious,” says Peg Smith, CEO of American Camp Association.

Kids love to hear stories about their parents and when they were “young.”  Tell them stories about your positive camp experience and what you learned. You can also share about the independence a child will gain by staying at camp.  “Families can also encourage healthy separation, like overnight visits with family and friends, throughout the year,” says Smith.

Parents’ Hesitations

As a parent, you will have apprehensions when your child first goes away to camp but it’s normal part of the growing up process.  Remember the camp director and staff are trained to deal with homesick kids. If you have a concern about your child, he will more than likely surprise you on how well he does at his first time away.  “In reality, 99 percent of kids flourish without the parent,” says Sileo. 

Sleepover camps promote growth and independence.  At the end of camp, you’ll meet your kid at the bus or find him in a crowd and the first thing he’ll say, “When can I go again?”

Jan Udlock is a freelance writer who has five children all of whom have gone away to camp.

Handling Homesickness

DO involve your child in choosing a camp.

DO understand the camp’s philosophy on how issues, like homesickness, are addressed. Talk candidly with the camp director to understand his/her perspective on your child’s adjustment.

DO discuss what camp will be like before your child leaves.

DO send a note or care package ahead of time to arrive the first day of camp.

DON’T bribe. Linking a successful stay at camp to a material object sends the wrong message. The reward should be your child’s newfound confidence and independence.

DON’T feel guilty about encouraging your child to stay at camp. For many children, camp is a first step toward independence and plays an important role in their growth.

DO trust your instincts. While most incidents of homesickness will pass in a day or two, approximately 7 percent of the cases are severe. If your child is not eating or sleeping because of anxiety or depression, parents should work with the camp director and other staff to evaluate the situation.

DON’T make your child feel like a failure if his stay at camp is cut short.  Focus on the positive and encourage your child to try camp again next year.

Source: American Camp Association (acacamps.org)

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