Summer may be more than 200 days away, but it’s never too early to start thinking about sending your child to overnight camp.
A question on many parents’ minds however, might be: How do I know if my child is ready?
The Summer Camp Handbook, a free and online guide to everything you need to know about sending your child to camp, features an answer that’s pretty simple: “Families have good intuitions about the right time for overnight camp. Ultimately, kids themselves are the best gauges of proper timing.”
According to the guide, when a child shows spontaneous interest in going to camp, it’s probably the right time to start the camp search.
Preparation and enthusiasm
Dr. Chris Thurber, co-author of the Summer Camp Handbook, is a clinical psychologist and has been involved with camps for around 40 years. The idea for the guide came about as Thurber had completed his dissertation research on homesickness.
Thurber, who currently teaches a psychology class at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, says parents should have a good sense of whether their child is ready for camp or not, based on how they’ve prepared them.
If parents want to send their child to camp, it’s their job to make sure he or she is ready.
“Young people are unprepared,” he says. “They’ll get more out of their [camp experience] if they’re prepared.”
Children need to know “there are other people in the world who’ll care for them,” Thurber says. A great way for parents to prepare their children, he says, is to provide them with brief overnight experiences, away from home at an early age. These experiences will gradually build, until the child is comfortable with spending a certain amount of time away from home.
The “other ingredient” in knowing whether to send your child to overnight camp is if they show enthusiasm, both about their “ownership of separation” and attitude for a particular camp, Thurber says.
The “ownership of separation” would mean that a child is excited to be away from home for the length of his or her camp experience. The attitude about the camp location and its activities should be the other part of the positive enthusiasm aspect, Thurber says. Both are indicators that a child is ready to have his or her first overnight camp experience.
“These attitudes are powerfully predictive of intensity of homesickness and quality of experience,” he says.
Although children may be more than ready to attend overnight camp, it doesn’t mean they won’t experience homesickness.
What parents should tell their kids before sending them off to camp, Thurber says, is that “everyone misses something about home when they’re away,” and should then follow up by asking them what they will miss.
A pick-up deal, he says, should never be an option.
“The subtext of ‘If you feel homesick, I’ll come get you’ is: I have little confidence in your feelings; I’ll come and get you,” he says.
Rick Frankle, the camp director of Camp Airy (of Camp Airy and Louise), a Jewish-living overnight camp located in the Catoctin Mountains, also provided advice on how to tell if your child is ready for overnight camp.
“A child asking to go is always a good sign,” Frankle says. “If a child is comfortable sleeping out away from home, it would be a telltale sign they’re ready.”
Airy allows kids ages 7 and up to attend, and its oldest kids are going into their senior year in high school.
Choices parents may have to make
If a child is ready and old enough to attend camp but has no interest in going, the best way to go about the situation is to address the child’s concerns, states the Handbook. It also states that encouraging or forcing a child to go is the wrong angle to take.
Ways to address whatever concerns a child may have include visiting a camp while it’s in session and having the child talk to a peer who had an enjoyable camp experience.
“I think it’s good to get kids together for kid-to-kid communication,” Thurber says. “There’s a good chance they’ll be receptive to what peers have to say.”
If a child is ready for camp and shows enthusiasm in going, another thing parents may have to consider is whether to send them to a traditional generalized camp or a specialized camp.
Thurber says it would be ideal to look into both, but if a choice must be made, he suggests to start with a traditional camp like Camp Airy, as it usually presents a balanced combination of arts and athletics.
Regardless of what type of camp a child attends, Thurber suggests that areas such as a child’s socialization, sense of adventure and self-esteem are just a few of the developmental benefits of camp.
The values that all camps should provide kids, he says, are community living, recreational premise, beautiful living away from home and a natural setting.
Another thing parents may worry about is the changing of the times. They may believe that camp is nothing like it was when they attended and may feel uneasy sending their children off to unfamiliar territory. The truth to that is many camp activities are different from those of the past. Frankle recalls softball, crafting and hiking as mainstays when he attended camp. Now, Airy provides extreme sports, ropes courses and go-karting. Although the activities are different in terms of being current and relevant, Frankle says the heart and values of Camp Airy are still the same.
He recalls parents telling him that what their children say of their current camp experience usually involves the same feelings, emotions and growth opportunity that they experienced as children many years ago.
When it comes to sending your children to Camps Airy and Louise, Frankle says it’s a no-brainer.
“Being ready isn’t black and white, and it’s our job to work with them in their current state,” he says. “When kids are ready, we’re ready for them.”
For more information on camp readiness, types of camp, homesickness and everything in between, go to summercamphandbook.com.