Summer camp is fun, exhilarating, and full of adventure, but it’s also often a time when anxiety and stress can creep in. So, what’s the best way for kids and their parents to conquer their fears? Relax, because many families have the same questions and concerns.
Eric Stinehelfer, executive director at the YMCA of Greater Cleveland, French Creek Family YMCA, says some of the common fears include separation anxiety, the fear of going to a new place, not knowing anyone, or not having any friends in their group.
“We want campers to have fun, make new friends and have new experiences, but we also understand this could be a strange environment,” he says. “Our job as camp staff is to accommodate our campers, and parents as well.”
Dave Devey, director/owner of Falcon Camp, says kids may get a little homesick, but they’ll also be doing archery for the first time at camp.
One thing they might hear from parents is “What happens when it rains?”
“It’s good for parents to ask questions beforehand, which will give them a lot of insight,” Devey says. “That trust and communication is important to establish.”
“Know that being nervous is normal, and know that good camps are prepared to deal with that with your child,” he adds. “I think that it’s important to ask whatever questions are on your mind, and be satisfied with the answers you receive, because we are talking about allowing someone else to take care of your child for a while.”
So, whether you’re planning for a day camp or an overnight camp, we help answer six of the most common concerns.
1. How Can a Family Prepare for the Best Experience?
Jeannie Fleming-Gifford, executive director of Fairmount Center for the Arts, says the process of selecting a camp or getting to know a camp depends on the age of the child.
“It’s a little bit different if my child is a preschooler, and I’m looking for places that have lower ratios. I feel very safe, and I love the training of their team, etc. versus when my child may be 8, 9 or 10 years old, maybe they’re even going off to overnight camp at that point, and I might have them involved differently in each of those scenarios,” Fleming-Gifford says.
For parents, there’s often a fine line, she says. Parents must be careful not to share too much information with their kids, because it can make the experience seem more overwhelming or scary.
“As parents, we want to dig into all the nuts and bolts of camp,” she says. “We might want to know ‘Who is the camp team?’ and ‘What are their bios?’ and for kids, it may not be relevant, and it may not be interesting. It may also trigger some red flags for a kid, where they’re thinking, ‘Man, my parent is really worrying about this,’ and it might breathe fear into them that probably doesn’t need to be there.”
For kids, she suggests going to a camp open house. It will give them the lay of the land, and help them get to know some of the camp team members who will be there. She also says it’s beneficial for parents to engage their kids in the decision-making process.
“When a child gets to camp, there has to be some buy-in and excitement from that kid to want to participate,” Fleming-Gifford says. “Camp is different from a school situation, and I don’t think you can force them into, ‘Hey, you’re going to go to this camp because it’s good for you,’ versus ‘I think this might be a really exciting opportunity for you.’ So, I do think there’s some importance of involving the child in some of the decision-making, or negotiating with them on ‘Let’s give this camp a try,’ or ‘What do you think?’”
For older elementary kids and teens, camp can provide growth opportunities, new experiences, and social connections.
Sheri Niedermyer, owner at Classroom Antics, said parents should look at their kids’ interests and consider if they want to learn something new.
“They may not know what they are passionate about yet, but what do you observe that they enjoy?” she says. “Look for camps that offer topics in an area they already enjoy, but that may also push them further than they would go without the camp experience.”
2. What If My Kid is Afraid of the Unknown?
Fleming-Gifford says parents and their kids often express a fear of the unknown. They have questions like, “Who is the camp staff?” “Who are the people that will be caring for my child?” and “How will they care for my child?”
Communication with the camp director, who is usually a phone call or email away, and learning more about the camp’s staff members will help parents feel more comfortable.
Parents can put their minds at ease by making sure the camp has done background checks, or by talking directly to camp leaders. Other ways to face common fears is to go to a camp fair or check out a camp guide.
“I think that’s probably the No. 1 fear, about the staffing, and just making sure that the camp is engaging and employing, overseeing and supervising, and going through the proper protocols to ensure the camp teams who are going to be caring for children are fantastic,” Fleming-Gifford says.
Devey adds that it’s important for parents to do research beforehand. In running an overnight camp, he’s an advocate for kids going to an American Camp Association accredited camp.
“An ACA-accredited camp goes through a process of 300-plus standards that they choose to meet. So, we’ve answered questions within our own program that parents haven’t even thought to ask yet,” he says.
With ACA accreditation, there’s an emphasis on things like staff training, along with a lot of validation and documentation to back it up, to make sure that children are safe and staff members are doing their jobs. Also, parents shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions.
Mary Rouse, director of Outdoor Experiences for Cleveland Metroparks, says it’s important to pick a camp that’s in an area of interest to your child, something that aligns with what they really like or would like to learn about. Then you can connect them with a trusted organization that will provide them with a quality camp experience.
“You want to think about those trusted organizations in your community, whether that’s the city recreation department, or the YMCA, but something where you have confidence that they are used to running camps for children,” Rouse says, “You want to work with organizations that are used to working with youth.”
3. What If My Child Doesn’t Know Anyone?
Another huge concern camp directors hear from parents is “What if my child gets to camp, and they don’t know anyone?” Camps have plans in place to help kids interact with other campers, and they’re experienced on how to build community.
Rhonda Rickelman, director of auxiliary programming at Gilmour Academy, says it’s important for kids to learn to how to develop relationship skills. She says one of the easiest ways to make friends at camp is to ask them questions, start a conversation, or to tell them a few things about yourself.
“When kids are in a familiar situation at their grade schools or in other everyday situations, they don’t always reach out,” Rickelman says. “They’re already in with their groups of friends. So they need to learn to reach out.”
“As a parent, you can teach them how to respond in situations where they’re meeting new people,” she adds. “One thing they can do is to introduce themselves. It’s also helpful for them to be able to share something about themselves or what they like.”
“Another thing they can try is to ask a question or two about the other person. It can be something as simple as ‘What do you like to do?’ or ‘What school do you go to?’ These kinds of questions are good conversation starters when kids are around new people or trying to make new friends.”
While camp directors and their staff are trained to encourage kids to make new friends and build relationships, parents can help to take the lead, too.
Rickelman suggests setting small goals, like talking to one new person each day, or trying a different activity that they didn’t think they would like.
Playing games or participating in team-building activities that are offered are other ways kids can get to know other campers.
4. What If There’s No Technology?
Rickelman says another thing that kids are afraid of is that they won’t have any technology, because they’ve become so used to smartphones, tablets and other devices being part of their everyday lives.
She finds it’s especially true with older kids, who think, “Oh my gosh, I’m not going to be able to use my technology.”
“Most camps tell kids to put their phones away,” she says. “The idea is to be present during their camp experience.”
Most camp directors feel like camp should be a time where kids can unplug. This allows kids to focus on the camp experience. The benefits of disconnecting can include connecting with other campers, giving kids a break from being in front of a screen, and allowing kids to experience something different, like exploring the outdoors or participating in an activity.
“Our day is scheduled enough that there really isn’t a whole lot of free time,” Stinehelfer says. “We want them interacting with their friends and doing activities.”
5. What If My Kid Doesn’t Know What to Expect?
“I think every camp has a director that is willing to sit down and talk about step one, step two, pricing, what’s included, if there’s extended care before and after, if you have to work early or stay late,” says Stinehelfer. “There’s a lot that goes into a summer camp for parents and families, and with our particular set-up, they can call and talk to our youth and family director, and they really talk about everything that’s involved.”
Most camps provide a camp packet that goes out to families. This helps the camp team learn more about each camper.
“That gives us information about the camper, like their health history, allergies, things they like and things they don’t like, or any other details, such as do they wear hearing aids, or anything else that a parent thinks we need to know,” Stinehelfer says.
Another valuable tip is to make sure you have important contact information on hand in case something comes up or a question arises later, Niedermyer notes.
“Make sure you have a phone number where you can reach a person in case you are running late…Weather and traffic can also factor into your commute. If the phone number given to you does not reach someone on-site, perhaps it will be like our camp, where I take calls in the office and reach out to the camp managers on site to relay the information,” she says.
6. How Can I Keep My Child from Getting Homesick?
“What do I do if my child is homesick?” is another concern camp directors hear from parents all the time.
A 5-year-old in a new environment might find camp scary or be nervous, says Rouse, so there’s a sense of being homesick or getting used to something new.
“We give the parents the opportunity on the first day to meet the counselors, to see where things are at, and we give them an overview of the plan, so they know what to expect from the day’s activities or from the week’s activities, and then we stay in touch,” Rouse says. “We circle back at the end of the day, or through online platforms to communicate with families, so they’ll know what we’re doing, and if their child has a good day or if they’ve had some challenges.
Sarah Spahr-Margevicius has three children, ages 4, 8, and 11. Her kids have attended area day camps, including Fairmount Center for the Arts in Novelty.
She says sometimes a child can have a fear of what they’ll miss at home while they’re at camp, like, “What is the family going to be doing that I’m going to miss out on while I’m at camp?’
“We’re not going on a vacation or something without them – so, there’s nothing that they’re really going to miss out on that’s important,” Spahr-Margevicius says. “We would never go to the zoo and have them not go with us. So, if they’re at camp, we’re probably just at home without them, and they’re not missing out on anything. We’re just going to the grocery store and other routine activities.”
According to Devey, homesickness can be just as much – or more – of an issue for parents than it is for campers.
“Your child, while they might be missing you, is having fun with other children, they’re being supervised, they are going to activities, and they are eating well. There are good people taking care of them. As a parent, you’re the one who is sitting at home worrying. So, homesickness more often is on the part of the parents than it is on the part of the child,” Devey says, “So, it’s good for parents to be able to recognize that.”