The days are getting longer, the weather is getting warmer, and many parents' thoughts begin to stir….ah…summer camp. Few words can conjure up such vivid memories and images of childhood. Camp can be a magical experience for children—a time to explore the outdoors, discover new interests, and enhance self-reliance. It can also be fraught with anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression, but that's usually reserved for the parents! Most children adjust quickly to being at camp, but parents may have a harder time letting go. The truth is that summer camp can provide all family members with a much-needed break and opportunity to recharge.
Camping first got its start in America in the late 1800's when Frederick Gunn and his wife Abigail, headmasters of a private school, decided to take a group of students on a wilderness trip. Their 1861 adventure led to the first structured camping organization of its kind in the United States as well as countless memories for millions of individuals who continue to enjoy the camping experience.
Dr. Christopher Thurber, co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook: Everything You Need to Find, Choose and Get Ready for Overnight Camp—and Skip the Homesickness helps us understand exactly why it is that we are so drawn to the camping experience.
"Camp is a wonderful change of pace, environment, and context. At camp, young people can shed their old reputations and feel free to be the person they know they are. At camp, young people can relax and learn life skills—such as making friends and playing fair—that will serve them and the people whose lives they touch."
Thurber believes that most children are ready to spend time away from home by the time they're seven. But, as with so much of parenting, recognizing your child's individual needs and developmental readiness is key to the experience. What is right for one child may be completely wrong for another, so it's important to asses your child's unique interests and eagerness to separate from you. Has your son ever spent any time away from you? Ever slept at a friend's house or a grandparent's? Does your daughter like to make new friends or is she slow to warm-up in new environments? Is your child able to follow instructions and communicate with adults? Does he enjoy participating in group activities?
My own daughters couldn't have been more distinct when it came to their summer camp attitude. Megan was itching to leave home for sleepover camp by the time she was six. Her older sister, even by the age of eleven, was less than enthusiastic. Sleeping in a bunk bed, sharing a room with six strangers, and swatting mosquitoes were not appealing to her. As wonderful as summer camp can be for many children, it is not for everyone. Many parents make the mistake of assuming that their child will adore camp once he or she has time to settle in. Let your child be the best judge of if and when he or she is ready to go.
Like the first day of school, the first day of camp can be an anxious experience for kids. Thurber, a veteran camper in his own right, points out that over 95 percent of children feel some degree of homesickness while at camp. If your child is apprehensive before leaving for camp, spend some time talking about his or her particular fears. The more prepared children are for any new experiences, the better equipped they will be to deal with their emotions.
"Talking about it can inoculate your child against becoming homesick," advises Hugh Leichtman, a clinical psychologist and camp director in Boston.
Be candid in your conversation with your child. "What is it that is worrying you?" "Let's talk about the things you can do if you do get homesick." Many camps suggest that children bring a favorite stuffed animal or pillow with them to help them at night, often the most difficult time for homesickness. Visits, phone calls, and emails are usually discouraged by most camps, as are lengthy letters from home telling children how much their parents are missing them. Campers are able to make the best of their summer experience when they know that their parents fully support their move towards independence.
Some familiar characters like Franklin or Arthur might also be helpful in introducing the subject of camp and to generate excitement about new activities. There are lots of books about camp, but this list will get you started:
- I Don't Want to Go to Camp by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Maryann Cocca-Leffler Boyds Mills Press, ages 3-6
- The Berenstain Bears Go to Camp written and illustrated by Stan and Jan Berenstain Random House, ages 3-6
- Franklin Goes to Day Camp by Paulette Bourgeois and Brenda Clark Scholastic, ages 2-4
- Arthur Goes to Camp by Marc Brown Little, ages 3-6
- Princess Lulu Goes to Camp written by Kathryn Cristaldi and illustrated by Heather Harms Malone Grosset & Dunlap, ages 5-8
Thurber recommends that children practice separating from their parents in small doses. Start out with a sleepover at a grandparent's house to assess your child's readiness. Try setting up a mini-camping experience with a friend or neighbor. Pitch a couple of tents in the backyard. The supervising parent can occupy one tent while the kids can be in the other. Your child can get used to being separated from home plus have a little taste of the outdoors all at the same time.
If your youngster is too young for overnight camping or simply not interested in sleeping over, consider a day camp. Be prepared to spend time researching camp options and determining the best available choice for your child; there are numerous types of day camps, from the traditional to camps with focus specifically on art, music, nature, sports, or drama, for example. There are also camps for special needs children that can be wonderfully enriching.
Families can also spend time canoeing, hiking, and camping together to learn some of the basics of camp life. If your child enjoys those experiences, you can reintroduce the notion of overnight camp. Get out the marshmallows and get ready for some summer fun!