Sleepaway camp or day camp? Which is best for your child?

Campers at Habonim Dror Camp Moshava celebrate Shabbat. Photo provided.

If your child is going to be a first-time camper this year, you may be wondering what type of camp will best suit their needs. Or maybe you’re looking to change up the routine and try a new camp. So what are some of the differences between sleepaway camp and day camp that you might want to consider?

1. Time away from home
Children going to sleepaway camps will be away from home longer, spending days and nights at camp. Many sleepaway camps have sessions that vary in length, anywhere from two weeks to seven weeks.

Jen Silber, executive director of Habonim Dror Camp Moshava, says that for many children, being away from home for so long is a new experience that lends itself to new opportunities.

“They get to try all these new things that they don’t do in their day-to-day lives at home and that really helps build independence and confidence,” Silber says.

Parents may miss their children, Silber says, but are usually excited that their children are becoming part of a camp community. Day camp campers come home at the end of the day, and parents will see their children in the mornings. Some day camps, such as Camp Gan Israel of Silver Spring, an Orthodox-run camp, also offer full-day or half-day options.

Burke resident Becky Rotem says her oldest son has gone to URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform camp in Pennsylvania, for the past three summers and loved the experience.

“It’s kind of like a three week long sleepover,” she says, but notes it was hard for her the first time her son spent 10 days at a sleepaway camp. “Every time you send one kid for the first time you’re a little nervous, but maybe when you see how much they like it you’re not as nervous in the subsequent years.”

It may also be children who aren’t ready to leave home, says Capital Camps CEO Jonah Geller, so parents should gauge whether their child is comfortable with the concept.

“I think a child is ready when he or she is comfortable spending time away from home whether it be on extended overnight playdates or overnight trips with their friends,” Geller advises. “When kids are comfortable doing that and they don’t need their parents to come pick them up,” they are likely ready for sleepaway camp.

2. Age of children

The age ranges of day camps and sleepaway camps vary, but day camps tend to accept children at younger ages. There are often minimum ages set for sleepaway camps, says Rabbi Jill Levy, director of Camp Ramah’s day camp in Washington.

Camp Ramah’s day camp starts with children entering kindergarten, whereas its sleepaway counterpart in New England starts for children entering second grade. Day camps and sleepaway camps alike group children by age.

Silber says she thinks older teenagers tend to stray away from day camp, and instead prefer the independence of sleepaway camp.

3. Communication and technology

Many Jewish day camps and sleepaway camps do not allow children to use cell phones or other personal devices during the day. At sleepaway camp, children will of course be unplugged for a longer period of time.

Instead, those at sleepaway camps write letters to their parents to keep in touch. Parents can also send letters and care packages to the children, and keep in touch with camp leaders through email and phone.

“Of course there’s times where if there’s a need for phone calls and things like that, we’re all very reachable these days,” Silber says.

4. Types of activities
Both types of camp typically offer swimming, field trips, arts and crafts, music, sports and others depending on whether the camp has a special focus.

Silber and Geller say the biggest difference is the overnight trips that sleepaway camps provide. Camp Moshava has pool parties and camping in the woods. Capital Camps organizes camping trips in state parks.

Day camp field trips are likely to take campers to amusement parks, museums and other local attractions.

Outdoor and woods activities are a big part of sleepaway camps. Photo courtesy of Habonim Dror Camp Moshava.

5. Cost
Sleepaway camps are more expensive than day camps due to the amount of time children spend at the camp facilities.

For example, a two-week session at Camp Moshava costs $2,950. Its full summer program (seven weeks) costs $8,850. A full summer (seven weeks) at Capital Camps, depending on age group, costs upwards of $10,795.

By comparison, Camp Ramah’s day camp costs $1,060 for a two-week session, or $3,520 for the whole seven-week summer. Depending on age group, Camp Gan Israel costs upwards of $330 per week or $1,770 for the full six weeks.

However, sleepaway camps also tend to offer discounted rates. Capital Camps has discounts for new families and families with multiple children attending the camp. Camp Moshava offers scholarships, discounts for referring friends and sibling discounts.

Families can also apply for scholarships and grants from outside organizations, such as their synagogues or the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which offers the One Happy Camper grant for first-time campers.

Rotem took advantage of the One Happy Camper grant the first time her son attended sleepaway camp. But, she says, “If they don’t want to do a sleepaway camp — it’s definitely more expensive — day camps are a good option.”

6. Independence

At sleepaway camp, say several camp leaders, children must learn how to advocate for themselves, take care of themselves and collaborate and communicate with fellow campers and their counselors.

Geller says children learn to sort out difficult situations at sleepaway camp.

“They get to come out of their shell a little bit and really explore who they can be,” Geller says. “My own kids included, by the way, go to Jewish summer camp and I can see how they mature after each summer.”

He says that type of development does happen at day camp, but he notices a bigger change in sleepaway campers because of their time away from home.

They also form strong friendships, especially with campers who return year after year.

“I also think because of the fact of living together, I see our campers really form — they’re in the same cabin, they’re with each other day and night — they develop as an age group a really strong connection,” says Silber.

7. Jewish life

Any Jewish camp, regardless of time spent, will have some focused time on Jewish life. Day camps may start with morning prayer services, host challah baking or have Oneg Shabbat on Friday to help teach campers about Judaism.

“We see day camp as a really great way to have a really meaningful, positive, exciting Jewish experience that can lead into an amazing overnight experience as the kids get older,” Levy says.

Because sleepaway campers spend the whole weekend at camp, Levy says, they will get a more thorough Shabbat experience, including prayer leadership and singing songs.

Geller points out that day camp won’t provide a Havdalah experience for campers, since they don’t attend on Saturdays.

As a parent, Rotem says she appreciates the exposure her children will get to Jewish life at sleepaway camp.

“I do like they can be in an environment with a lot of other Jewish kids,” she adds.

But either setting is a learning experience, says Geller, who likes to quote former Yeshiva University President Richard Joel as saying, “If you want your children to have a Jewish background, provide them with a Jewish playground.”

Geller adds, “And I think there’s no better Jewish playground than a Jewish day camp or overnight camp.”

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Twitter: @jacqbh58

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