Sunny Days Ahead

Preparing children for the camp experience.

I can’t remember the names of most of the kids in my bunks or what was served in the dining room. I can’t remember if I came in third in the big swim race or if I made it to the top of the tennis ladder. What I do remember, however, is the feeling my summers at Raquette Lake Girls Camp gave me— the feeling I was someone special.

For me, camp was nothing short of a life saver. Well, maybe more like a life maker. It brought me endless joy and skyrocketing confidence. It taught me to believe in myself as well as the power of teamwork. While school wasn’t always my cup of tea, the value of camp was priceless. Looking back, it scares me to think that all of my special camp memories might not have happened if my parents didn’t believe in the value of camp. What if a bad moment or perhaps my parents’ fears of sending me away from home had prevented my love of camp and changed the course of my life?

While I never batted an eyelash about leaving home, such an act can induce anxiety for some kids and parents. The mere thought of going off to day camp can bring some children to tears. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Camp is an invaluable learning experience. Campers learn to make friends, attempt new skills, develop autonomy from their parents and push themselves in varied ways. In addition, heading off to camp for the first time gives a child the strength to face similar circumstances in the future. This tenacity is an important life skill.

Because the value of camp is so well-documented, it is worth doing some planning and preparation to help ensure your child has a rewarding summer experience.

Tips to Ready Your Children for a Summer of Fun

Do your homework. Just as you take strides to make sure your children’s school is right for them, take the necessary steps to ensure the chosen camp offers a good fit. There are a million summer camps out there. Some camps are religiously-oriented or sports-oriented, while some focus on music and art. A good fit at camp goes a long way in enabling a child adjust to the new environment.

Just because your neighbor’s son loves Camp Sports Fanatic doesn’t mean your crafty son would. Get recommendations from friends, then go and see the camps in person. Meet with the directors, and discuss your child and specific concerns. If your child is old enough to be part of the decision, Barbara Schainman from Camp Mohawk in White Plains recommends narrowing the decision down to two camps. It can be overwhelming for kids to have to make too many decisions.

Have a positive attitude. As parents, we think we are experts at speaking code around our children to keep them out of the loop of our innermost thoughts. Truthfully, we are only fooling ourselves. Children are super sleuths who can smell fear a mile away. There is probably nothing that will have more of an impact on your child’s anxiety level than your attitude toward camp. If your children see how excited you are for them to go to camp— and what wonderful memories you have of camp— they will be excited, too. If, however, your children hear that you are worried about how they will fare at camp— or about the time when the entire group laughed at you in the talent show— they too will feel fear or be traumatized. If you’re nervous about your kids starting camp, share your concerns with a friend, relative, neighbor or therapist. Keep a brave face for your children.

Pack and shop together. Getting ready for camp is part of the experience. Let your child pick out a new flashlight. Hype up a trip to Target to get some new thermal socks and a Mets hat for camp. Even buy a special outfit for the first day. Whatever you choose to get, make the shopping jaunt exciting. If your children are going off to sleepaway camp, let them help pack their bags. They will know what is going to camp and won’t worry about what might be missing.

Attend tour sessions and meet staff. Most camps have new camper days or sessions for families to visit the camp immediately before the start of the summer program. Make use of this time to introduce your child to the camp environment and meet with his or her counselors. Sometimes what children imagine is scarier than the reality. Once they see how great the camp looks and how friendly their counselors are, they will be much more excited and relaxed about attending camp.

Be present throughout the summer. When your kids head to camp, remind your children that you are thinking of them and love them. Send letters and goodies as often as possible. Be creative, even if your children attend day camp. Imagine how you would feel if you opened your swim bag to a note that read: “Good luck with that dive today. I know you can do it!” Such encouragement works wonders.
At sleepaway camp, mail is a lifeline. Campers light up when they receive letters or bundles of treats. Make sure to write that you love and miss your child. However, do not describe the amazing pool party you recently attended with mounds of ice cream and special surprises. Kids want to know you miss them and that you aren’t enjoying any major experiences while they are gone.

Make a commitment to camp. While camp offers lots of thrills, it isn’t always perfect. Michael Friedman, the executive director at Camp Vacamas in West Milford, New Jersey, advises that “unless your child is being harmed emotionally or physically, let him finish out the term at camp.” When your children know there is a possibility that you may take them home from camp, they stop trying to build relationships and withdraw investment in the camp’s skill-building environment. Rough periods at camp generally last less than a day. If you tell your children that you know attending this camp may be hard for them at times— but you are proud of them for sticking it out— it goes a long way in improving their chances of success at camp.

Maintain communication with counselors and camp administrators. Communication with camp staff does not have to end once the first day of camp arrives. Nor should it. Be empowered to discuss your concerns whenever they arise. When you inform the camp of issues that may be affecting your child, you and camp personnel can work together on a positive solution for a summer of fun.