When I sat down to write this article, I’d planned to come up with five themed care package ideas with great products that I thought kids would love to receive at camp. A builder’s package for budding engineers! An artist’s package with paints and a canvas!
Then I asked the people who run summer camps what they thought kids would like. It turns out, many camp directors are not big fans of care packages and are considering eliminating them altogether—due to COVID-19, but for other reasons, too.
“While care packages can be a fun way to connect with your camper while they are away, it can cause hurt feelings amongst campers who don’t receive one,” says Michael Ohl, camp executive of Camp Chief Ouray in Granby.
In addition, care packages “take up a lot of our staff resources, because a staff person has to get all the packages at the post office and then they have to sit with the child when they open it [to make sure the package doesn’t contain food],” says Jeff Cheley, director of Cheley Colorado Camps in Estes Park. Cheley adds that he often sees care package items end up in the trash. “The gift of the camp experience is amazing by itself,” he says. “Campers are so busy at camp they don’t really need anything.”
What can parents do instead, to help kids (and themselves) cope and thrive during their time apart? Camp professionals have some thoughts on that, too.
Write a well-thought-out letter
In her article for the American Camp Association (ACA), “Alive and Well: The Case for the Camp Letter,” clinical psychologist Anne Fishel proposes that the ritual of good old-fashioned letter writing might be reason enough by itself to send kids to camp. “Where else are they going to learn how to address an envelope, lick a stamp, and wait for days to get a response?” she said. “The camp letter may be the last hard copy standing, the last form of communication not to be replaced by email or texting.”
Fishel adds that camp letters she saved from her own mother offered another benefit decades later. Now that her mother is deceased, she revisits her letters once a year: “As I reread those letters, I feel that she has paid me a visit.”
“We love when parents send their campers letters!” says Laura Pate, director of operations at SOAR Camp, which offers camps for kids with ADHD and learning disabilities. “A great addition to a letter from home are sheets of puzzles, word searches, crosswords, brainteasers, etc. Not only do they provide fun activities that they can share with friends, but they literally take up zero room in a pack.”
Other extras easy to tuck in a standard mail envelope are news clippings about your child’s favorite sports team or current events, jokes, a print-out of a meme, or photos from home they can share with their new friends. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope, to increase the chances you’ll get a reply.
More options: Write a letter in pig Latin or backwards; create a secret code and write a letter in it; include a fill-in-the-blank letter on a separate sheet of paper that kids can fill out and mail back easily.
Not all camp letters are created equal, though. Cheley suggests there are letter-writing do’s and don’ts that parents should consider that will help their kids thrive in a camp setting.
Cheley suggests that parents talk to their kids beforehand and be clear about what you plan to send. If it’s a letter, tell them how many times you plan to write and that you will not be sending a big care package, so they know what to expect during camp’s mail call. Ask them, if free time allows, to please write you back at least once.
If you think they’d appreciate a special treat or specific time together after camp is over, make a plan together. It will be something they can look forward to, without distracting them from all the fun they can be having at camp.
Add a surprise to their suitcase
For parents who love to give gifts, adding a small hidden surprise in your child’s suitcase will eliminate any issues that care packages might cause, and you’ll already know there’s room for it. Write “open on day three” (or another date) on the gift’s packaging for fun. Remember to always avoid food items, which can attract wild animals in outdoor settings, cause other campers to feel left out, or potentially trigger allergies of other campers.
Consider one of the following:
- Small surprises that will allow them to engage with one or two other campers during free time: playing cards, Mad Libs, Spot It!, Tenzi, Bananagrams, cribbage, magnetic travel chess, Farkle, a joke book, Rory’s Story Cubes
- Items that might be useful at camp: an extra pair of silly socks, a fun hat, cool flashlight, portable camping hammock
- Things they can enjoy quietly: books/comics, crossword puzzle or word search books, journal and pens, small jigsaw puzzle, fidget toy, stuffed animal
Put money in their camp account
Most camps have a camp store at which students can purchase items. Deposit the money you might have spent on a care package into your child’s camp store account, tell them it’s there, and how much you’ve put in. This will allow them to make decisions about purchases, as well as learn to budget the money if there is more than one thing they wish to purchase.
Going this route can financially benefit your camp, especially during these COVID-19 times when camps have suffered great losses, and will continue to face challenges this summer, according to the ACA. It’s also more environmentally friendly, adds Cheley, as buying local from the store cuts down on shipping needs and packing waste.
Send Your Kids A Fill-In Letter
Do you have kids of few written words? Help them out by sending a simple fill-in-the-blank letter they can mail back to you, and learn about what they are doing at the same time.
I am in ________ cabin.
My new friend’s name is ________.
My counselor is ___________ and I like him because ___________.
My favorite activity has been ___________ because ____________.
What to Say in a Camp Letter
• DO check the camp’s website/social media on which they post photos or details about what kids have been doing. Comment about one or two of these things in your letter.
• DO tell your children that you are busy, doing fine, and that they aren’t really missing anything. Remain upbeat and positive.
• DO compliment them and relate it back to how their positive attributes will help them succeed at camp.
• DO ask questions, so they will be prompted to write back.
What NOT to Say in a Camp Letter
• DON’T remind them what they are missing out on at home. While you might think this is news they’ll be interested in, it could just cause feelings of homesickness.
• DON’T put pressure on them to process things that might not be going well in the family. Young people can feel stressed if they believe that them being gone is having a negative impact, says Cheley, even if you mean well.
• DON’T tell your child how different things are without them. Make them think you are doing fine, so they can focus on friends and activities at camp.
Dear Parents: Live It Up!
You’ve worked hard to be able to afford to send your kids to camp, and thanks to trained staff, they’ll have more supervision and more unplugged time at camp than anywhere else. Take this time as parents to recharge, knowing they are in good hands.
In my case, my two kids have never managed to go to camp on the same weeks, but this, too, has been a gift. It has allowed my husband and I to focus on one child at a time and do things the child-at-home wants to do, without having to compromise with the very-opposite-personality sibling. Pre-pandemic, we battled the day away with our son at the Colorado Renaissance Festival, which our teen daughter was all too happy to miss while attending Girl Scout camp at Tomahawk Ranch.
You could also arrange a date night or a date-overnight (knowing you don’t have to be home for the babysitter); eat at a restaurant the kids never want to go to; binge on shows the kids can’t watch; tackle a home project that’s tough to finish with the kids around; try ax throwing or skydiving; read a book you never have time for; visit with an old friend; sleep in and take long showers. You’ve earned it.