For you, summer camp is 4-to-8 weeks of kid-free vacation. For them, it can be a bit more of a challenge. Because although you may have fond sleep away memories and still write letters to Bunk 8, it doesn’t mean your son or daughter is ready for a technology-free, group-showering, color-warring, nature-confronting, parent-leaving experience.
Tom Holland, CEO of the 150-year-old American Camp Association, appreciates how daunting (and rewarding) this experience can be, because he has evaluated more than 2700 facilities across America. He knows a Kamp Krusty from a Camp Mohawk. In fact, this is the first year he gets to send his 8-year-old away for the summer. Here’s how he’s preparing his own kid to combat homesickness and be a happy camper.
Are They Old Enough For Camp?
“The average age is about 9,” says Holland. “But there are camps for kids who are younger than that age.” He says that there are 4 ways to tell if your child is ready to spend the summer away:
- Successful Sleepovers: If they’re going to a friend’s for the weekend and they’re not having you pick them up at 2 AM because their friend’s room “smelled weird,” it’s a mature sign.
- Curiosity About Camp: If they have friends who have been to camp, the nonstop inside jokes and camp cheers may pique their curiosity.
- Been To A Day Camp: It helps to be familiar with the schedule before you go full bore. There are usually resident camps that have a day camp counterpart.
- Slept In A Tent: “Take them overnight camping,” says Holland. “That’s a great first step. Take a 5-year-old and gauge their interest level.”
How To Choose A Camp
If you’re at a loss for where to start, try the Camp Finder app on the American Camp Association site. “Accredited camps have to go through 290 standards with the interest of your child in mind,” says Holland. “It evaluates everything from personal growth, to safety issues, to the temp of the fridge where food is stored. If a camp goes through this, they’re dedicated to the health and well-being of your child.”
Other factors to consider:
- Location: This is more for you than your kid. “Kids will feel the distance, no matter what,” says Holland. So be honest with yourself (and your spouse) about how far is too far for you to feel comfortable. You old softie.
- Activities: There is quite literally a camp for every interest at this point, so don’t send a kid who won’t shut up about being the next Stef Curry to arts camp, and don’t send your little Oliver Jeffers to basketball camp.
- Gender: “I think there are some differences in the energy that’s at camp and how it plays between boys and girls — especially at certain ages,” says Holland, who also holds a PhD in the obvious. Just know that, even if you don’t send them to coed camp, they should still be prepared for gloriously awkward dances.
Once you’ve narrowed down the field, call the camp and speak to the camp directors. Find out if parents in your community have sent their children to the camp. Then, ask what kind of champagne they popped when the bus pulled away.
How Long Should They Go For?
Unless your kids really can’t stand you, going away for the first time is nerve wracking for everybody. That’s why most camps break up their schedules into sessions, so if a young kid isn’t ready to be away for almost 2 months maybe just test things out with a 2-week or month-long session instead of a the full summer. Keep in mind that if they want to hone some athletic skills, they’ll get the most impact from a longer session.
Do A Dry Run Before They Leave
Now that you’re in the home stretch of the school year, it’s time to stoke that excitement for camp. The first step is to bust out all of that gear on the packing list and make sure it works. “When your child is there without you, you want to set them up for success. Lay it all out and go backyard camping,” says Holland. Better to find out that the bear repellant doesn’t work on the neighbors first.
A Note About That iPad
Most camps ban the use of electronics, which sounds worse than a North Korean prison to most kids, but Holland swears they’ll get through it. “I think there’s apprehension at the start of a program. But when nobody is texting, you’re all on a level playing field. It can be very freeing.” In the meantime, make sure they have a picture of mom and dad for comfort — just explain that swiping it won’t do anything.
How To Deal With Homesickness
That phone call from your kid pleading with you to take them home might happen, but there are a few things you can do to head off homesickness at the pass.
- Send them with that piece of home to ground them.
- Set expectations. Let them know if they’ll get a steady stream of letters from you so they can anticipate that next connection. Or if you’ll be out of pocket on a yacht in the south of France, let them know that too.
- Get to know the camp director. When you get that call to leave camp you’ll be able talk to the adult in the room to find out what’s really happening. Also, the director has seen and heard it all, so they know if it’s really a rescue situation.