By Lisa McCormack
You have visions of your child canoeing down a lazy river, learning how to pitch a tent, and singing campfire songs.
But you want to make sure your child is ready before you send him or her off to summer overnight camp for the first time.
Preparing your child and letting him know what to expect will make the transition easier for everyone, child development experts say.
Wendy Shay, a former guidance counselor at Stowe Middle High School, has spent more than 20 summers as a staff member and director at various Vermont camps. Most recently, she was director of Camp! at Lake Fairlee.
All children are different; there’s no magic age when they’re ready for their first camp experiences, Shay said.
“Some kids are ready at 6 or 7,” Shay said. “For other kids, it can be 11 or 12 or even later. It depends on the child and the opportunities they’ve had. It’s not an age thing.”
You’ll want to make sure your child has had a few successful sleepovers before sending her off for a week, said Sara Pennock, who recently retired from her job as a student counselor at Morristown Elementary School.
“I would want to make sure my child can spend a night at a friend’s house or grandma and grandpa’s house,” Pennock said. “Is the child able to leave their mom or dad or both? Have they had day camp or day-care experiences?”
If your child asks to go away to camp, consider it a positive sign.
“The fact that they’re campaigning for it shows you they’re ready,” Shay said.
Shay suggests researching camps that are accredited through the American Camp Association or the Vermont Camp Association. Both organizations grade camps on a variety of criteria, from staffing to sanitation to program diversity.
Feel free to take a tour of the camp you’re considering before submitting your child’s registration forms.
“If you call and ask to visit a camp and they put you off, that’s not a good sign,” Shay said. “Camps should be welcoming and open to having you visit.”
Once you’ve registered your child for camp, you’ll want to make sure she knows what to expect when she arrives.
“Information is key,” Pennock said “Websites tend to be informative. Try calling the camp to see if there’s anyone in the area who has gone and would be good to talk to.”
It’s also a good idea discuss any specific questions or concerns your child may have.
“Reading books about going away to camp could spark conversations,” Pennock said. “Coming up with a list of questions they might want to know answers to — When do we go to bed? When do we eat breakfast? Where do we brush our teeth? — is a good idea, too.”
Shay recommends that parents start preparing their child well in advance.
“Once you’ve decided on a camp, start talking to your child about when they’re going and what they’re going to be doing there,” Shay said. “Build a calendar so they can see when they’re going, when you’re going to visit, and when they’ll be coming home.”
While some children may feel more comfortable going to camp with a friend, it’s not always a good idea, Shay said.
“Sometimes it works out, but more often, you meet new people at camp and someone feels left out,” Shay said. “It’s not a bad thing to go on their own or with one buddy at the most.”
Working with the camp
On their registration forms, most camps will request information about your child’s past camping experiences, likes and dislikes, and fears.
That helps the staff get to know your child before he arrives and prepare for any special needs he may have.
Sending your child off with familiar objects – such as stuffed animals, family photos, or something that smells like mom or dad — can help stave off homesickness, Pennock said.
Pennock also suggests mailing letters and care packages at regular intervals. Mail the first one before he leaves so it will be there shortly after he arrives.
Parents who are worried about how their child is adjusting should feel welcome to call the camp and check in, though calling several times a day isn’t a good idea, Shay said.
Many first-time campers experience some homesickness, especially around meal times and bedtimes. Even campers who are having a great time might indicate that they’re homesick in their letters home.
Before children head off for camp, parents should let them know that it’s normal to feel homesick.
“Don’t give them an escape clause,” Shay said. “It implies that they won’t like it, and hamstrings you and the camp. Don’t tell them, ‘If you don’t like it, we’ll come and get you.’ A lot of kids will ask to leave after 24 hours.”
Instead, Shay recommends that parents rely on the camp to determine when a child is struggling – and often camps will have parents speak to their children who are in that situation.
Still, though rare, there are times when a child might not be ready to be away from home for a week and might have to go home, Shay said.
Benefits worth it
The benefits of attending summer camp far outweigh the occasional bouts of homesickness.
“Campers get to re-create themselves at camp,” Shay said. “Kids sometimes get pigeonholed at school. When you go to camp, the slate is wiped clean. If they’re not good at something at school, it doesn’t matter at camp. If they struggle in sports, they might be great at archery or canoeing.”
Camps also provide a way for children to make friends from throughout Vermont and other states and to gain exposure to people from other cultures, Shay said.
Additionally, the experience boosts a child’s independence and decision-making skills.
“In the morning, a camper might have to decide, ‘Should I do archery, or crafts?’” Shay said. “Maybe it won’t work out and they can try something different the next day. They get to make those types of decisions independent of their parents, but in a safe environment.”
When a camp experience doesn’t live up to a child’s expectations, Shay encourages parents to try again.
“Just because your child doesn’t like one doesn’t mean they won’t like camping,” Shay said. “Don’t worry if the first camp isn’t a good match. There are so many good camps out there.”
This article was originally published in the Stowe Reporter.