Each year, some 14 million campers pack their bags for summer camp and they come away from the experience with more than a commemorative tee-shirt and a capture-the-flag trophy. Per the American Camp Association, 96 percent of children who attend camp report making new friends there, 93 percent said they got to know children who were different from themselves and 74 percent tried an activity that used to scare them.
Despite these positive outcomes, prepping for summer camp can be intimidating for children — and families. From deciding when children are ready for camp, to choosing the best camp for your child, to coping with pre-camp jitters, here’s what you need to know to help kids get the most out of their summer camp adventure.
Elementary Years: 5-8
Ready or not
If your little one seems ready for an overnight camp, you’ve got options: Some camps, like those offered by Camp Fire and Camp Wyandot, welcome children as young as 7 for shorter overnight camp sessions.
Kathy Henry, of Camp Cheerful, Ohio’s barrier-free camp for children with and without disabilities, says gauging a child’s readiness can be easy.
“Young kids who have successfully completed a sleepover or two, happily participated in summer day camps and seem excited about the prospect of sleepaway camp are good candidates for an overnight camp experience,” she says. “The main question to ask is does your child want to attend sleepaway camp?”
If the answer is “not yet,” there’s no harm in waiting another year or two. When the answer is yes, you can reinforce your child’s enthusiasm for camp with some advance preparation. Visiting the camp beforehand, hosting a practice “campout” in the backyard and enlisting the future camper in shopping and packing for camp can help your child mentally prepare for the experience.
Tween Years: 9-12
Send with a friend?
You’ve signed your tween up for a slate of summer day camps with enticing themes that match their interests, from coding to cooking to crafting. However, instead of excitement, the news is met with an anguished wail: “I won’t have any friends there!” Parents can be split on whether to sign kids up for summer camp with friends or send them solo. Signing kids up for camp with their close friends can reduce pre-camp anxiety and ensure that campers have trusted playmates for the session. But camp is about making new friends — won’t sending children with a pack of pals prevent the process of meeting new people and bonding with cabin-mates? And making it happen isn’t simple — you’ll have to take on the hassle of finding a camp that fits several families’ schedules.
If you’re not sure which route to take, consider sending a first-time sleepaway camper with one close friend but requesting different cabins. This allows campers to check in with their friend during free times and meals, while also facilitating the formation of new friendships with other campers. When you just can’t find a camp that works for multiple families, selecting a well-known day camp close to your child’s school means that your child will probably see a few familiar faces there — and possibly end up with a new best pal by week’s end.
Teen Years: 13+
Pass on the prep work
Teenage campers and young camp counselors are old enough to take on the responsibility of prepping and packing for camp — with some parental supervision and support. After all, no parent wants to hear that their child forgot an essential item, missed out on an activity because they didn’t have the right gear or left an important item behind at camp.
A few weeks beforehand, check the camp’s rules on whether campers can bring personal food and electronics, how much spending money to bring and whether to pre-load it onto the camper’s account ahead of time. Print out a list of essential items and purchase a laundry bag for dirty clothes and a toiletry bag for personal care. Then ask your teen to start assembling a pile of camping gear with a checklist, beginning with the essentials like bedding, lighting, and clothing for cold or wet weather (overnights can get chilly, even in the summer). For your part, throw in extra sunscreen, flip-flops, batteries and a book or deck of cards for some “unplugged” downtime.
“A reusable water bottle and extra phone chargers, if they are bringing a phone, are ‘must haves’ and sometimes easily forgotten,” says Henry.
Other “extras” that your teen will appreciate: hot cocoa packets, an insulated mug, slippers, gum and envelopes already stamped and labeled with loved ones’ addresses.
While you’re at it, slip in a (discreet) note from home that lets your teen know they’re missed.