Camp is a summer rite of childhood – kids take off for a week or more and hike, swim, make new friends and generally have a great time. Camp is also a summer rite of parenthood, when parents worry over poison ivy, homesickness, picky eaters and worse. It may feel like a hundred things will go wrong without your watchful eye, but sending your child to an overnight camp is sure to go off without a hitch and will delight your child, too.
Safety is the biggest concern a new camp mom can have, according to Mark Scoular, director of the YMCA’s Camp Carson in Princeton, Ind. Rest easy if the American Camp Association (ACA) accredits the camp you are investigating. The ACA thoroughly reviews camps, including facilities, staff, the staff’s training, programming and more.
With ACA accreditation, “parents know the camps are meeting benchmarks,” says Scoular. “They know the camps are taking proactive steps to provide a safe, quality experience for their child.”
Don’t be afraid to question camp directors, either. Ask about background checks on counselors, ask to speak with other families whose children have attended in the past, and ask about emergency procedures and medical help on campus. You’re likely to find that most camps have at least one, if not two, registered nurses on site. And it’s OK to call a camp during camp season to ask for a family tour, according to Scoular. That way, you can see the camp in all its glory. If the answers to any of your questions or requests don’t satisfy you, then take your search elsewhere.
While some kids experience a bout of homesickness, most camp counselors find that it’s the parents who suffer the most. It can be tough to be away from your child, but don’t let “kid-sickness” – or even homesickness – prevent your child from an enjoyable camp experience. Besides, a little homesickness just might be good for them.
“Every camper deserves to experience a trip away from home and out of their comfort zones,” says Joey Barnard of YMCA Camp Piomingo in Louisville, Ky.
“If parents can cope with it, homesickness is part of growing up,” says Weston Outlaw of Camp Culver in Culver, Ind. He explains that the camp’s counselors are trained to spot signs of homesickness. They are also well versed on how to get kids through a day or two of missing Mom and Dad with a stronger, more independent child at the end of it all. “We tell parents to write encouraging letters, to tell their kids they’re proud of them,” says Outlaw, “but let the camps do their work. It’s great as a counselor to see kids get through it.” He explains that the hierarchy of the camp gives children plenty of people to turn to as role models. Letting counselors be there for your child during a rough patch also helps promote trust, a bond that will help later when it’s time to try new activities.
There are things you can do before your child even leaves home to fend off homesickness. First, don’t make a promise to pick up your child if he calls home. And while cell phones aren’t allowed at Camp Carson (“They’re a crutch,” says Scoular, adding that cell phones prevent kids from connecting to the camp community), parents can remain in touch via a secure Web site that allows them to send one-way e-mails and view photos of their children having fun, which is standard for residential camps.
Words of encouragement are always welcome, according to Scoular, but use caution. “Don’t say we miss you so much, and the dog hasn’t eaten since you left,” he says. Your child might end up spending the whole week worrying about you and the rest of the family!
Be very careful about making promises. “We allow parents to mail and send one-way e-mails,” says Barnard, “but we tell them not to promise specific things, like a care package arriving on a certain day.”
In addition, Barnard advises parents to talk about all the things a camper will get to experience, and to take a good look at the schedule with your child ahead of time. The more familiar and comfortable a child is with what he will be doing, the less chance he has of getting homesick.
Making New Friends
While some kids seem to collect friends no matter where they are, your child might be a little on the shy side. Not to worry, say the experts who are trained to spot kids attempting to make friends and help them find common ground with fellow campers. Counselors are there to help foster friendships and introduce children to new and different people. Not only will your child make friends with someone from a different town or state, he may also meet people from around the world. Nearly one-third of the staff at Camp Carson is international, and Camp Culver boasts one of the country’s largest camps, with more than 1,300 kids from 43 states and 33 countries. But in spite of being such a large organization, Camp Culver does take pains to make sure your child meets new friends.
“Don’t be discouraged by our size,” says Outlaw. “The one-on-one relationships will be there in the smaller units.” He explains that the camp follows a military structure, in that there are smaller groups within larger units, giving children the chance to make close friends as well as experience being part of a larger team as they participate in friendly competitions.
Team building and ice-breaking activities are a part of every camp’s schedule. In addition, camps often set individual and team goals to bring campers together. Nothing bonds kids faster than sharing a common objective!
Picky Eaters, Food Allergies and More
Maybe you worry that your camper will only live on hot dogs during his stay, or maybe you have a more serious concern, like an allergy to peanuts. Perhaps your child is asthmatic or diabetic. While there are special camps out there to accommodate your child’s needs – and where he can meet others facing similar challenges – your child’s special considerations don’t have to prevent him from attending other summer camps. At Camp Piomingo, the on-site medical staff works with the kitchen staff so that any special dietary needs are recognized and met. In addition, counselors keep campers’ epi-pens and inhalers with them at all times in a first-aid kit.
Investigate a camp’s food service offerings in advance – the more variety a camp can offer, the more likely your child will eat well while away from home. If it’s an allergy that has you worried, rest assured that most camps have successfully handled the issue in the past. Camp Carson is no stranger to food allergies, including severe ones.
“We can safely manage an allergy and the child can still have a good camp experience,” says Scoular, adding that the camp uses special requirements as an opportunity to teach children how to live with their allergy. “We want to teach life skills as well.”
Building a Stronger Child
It’s OK to worry about sending your children away for a week or longer, but don’t let your worries get in the way of an experience they will remember for the rest of their lives. An overnight camp has much to offer – new friends, new activities, and character- and leadership-building experiences.
“All children deserve to feel special and it is our goal to do so by offering a safe, fun and exciting overnight camping experience,” says Barnard.
Sherry Hang is a writer and editor.