Lexi and Austin Elberg of Aurora spend a month each summer at an overnight camp in Wisconsin. They each started going at eight years old. Although the initial experience was exciting for Lexi, Austin was a bit more apprehensive.
“Lexi dove in head first and never looked back. Austin is always the more ‘cautious’ of my kids,” says their mother, Linda Silkes. “He had more homesickness than his sister, but loves camp and his friends there.”
This summer will be the seventh year for Lexi and sixth for Austin at the camp, and the two kids are overnight camp pros. They nurture their camp friendships throughout the year by participating in text chat groups with camp friends. Now they look forward to seeing their friends and bunk mates each summer.
Whether your child is an old pro at sleepovers or it’s her first time leaving home for an extended period of time, packing up to leave home for a month or even a couple days at camp can bring pure excitement, a bundle of nerves, or severe anxiety. Once they arrive at camp, kids can experience some level of homesickness. So how do you decide if your child is ready for this next step into overnight camp culture?
In some cases, your child will come to you begging to go to camp with his friends, while other times, you’ll find yourself encouraging your child to look into overnight camps with you to see if it sparks his interest. Whatever the scenario, you must first assess if your child is indeed ready. If so, take the time to prepare them (and yourself) for the nights spent away.
Is My Child Ready?
Your child may be enthusiastic about the idea of overnight camp, but the main thing to consider is how she has managed time away from you up to this point.
“What has your child done so far in terms of either overnight experiences or independent experiences away from the home setting?” asks Anna Danila, the outdoor program manager for Girl Scouts of Colorado.
Have sleepovers been positive experiences or have you done a lot of late-night pickups? Has your child happily attended an all day camp for the past few years, while keeping track of their belongings? Has he spent several nights at friends’ and/or grandparents’ houses, camping overnight or for the weekend, with a certain level of independence?
Assess your child’s individual needs, as well as how independent she is and what level of maturity she holds. Age isn’t always an indicator of maturity and there is no perfect age to send kids to overnight camp. “There’s really a spectrum. The typical age that kids go to overnight camp is usually anywhere as young as seven to 10 (years old). You could have a really mature seven year old,” says Danila.
Also, research camp activities, and try them out at home. “If your child hasn’t had a lot of outdoor experiences—in Colorado a lot of families have grown up with some sort of camping or hiking, but not everyone—I recommend a family camping trip,” says Danila. She suggests camping with another family where the kids can all play outside with a little less supervision. “You’re there making sure it’s safe, but let them have that experience of what it feels like to be independent in an outdoor setting.”
Prepare for Homesickness
Once you and your child have made the decision that they will attend overnight camp, the next step is to prepare emotionally (and physically). You should address the emotional needs and concerns of your child, while still reiterating how fun the camp experience will be. It’s normal for you both to feel nervous and for homesickness to be one of the main concerns.
“Homesickness is a totally normal part of being away from home, and it’s a very, very normal part of being at camp,” says Danila, who suggests creating a plan in advance. “If homesickness happens, what’s the strategy? How are they going to get through that? There are a lot of benefits for a child if they can push through homesickness. Camp is the fun, it is the laughs and games. But it’s also learning coping skills and resiliency, and learning how to be a part of a community and pushing through homesickness to find those good parts of camp, too.”
Don’t establish an expectation that if your child is homesick you will pick him up. Instead, help your child prepare for camp with comforts. Watch videos on the camp website, talk about all the exciting activities he’ll experience from archery to hiking and swimming, and encourage your child to print the packing list and help gather and cross off each item he’ll need. Instead of focusing solely on worst-case scenarios, aim to talk only about all the positive fun your child will have. Remind your child that there will be counselors on hand, supporting and encouraging him daily.
If your child is a first-timer, don’t hesitate to call the camp in advance. It’s recommended that you schedule a call with the director or a camp counselor to address your needs and concerns, and also schedule one for your child to ask questions and express her own excitement or concerns.
“My recommendation is that you reach out to the people at the camp ahead of time, so they know what to expect,” says Silkes. “It puts them on notice, so they make a point of finding your kid the first day and acknowledge their feelings.”
Let Them Pack
Engage your child—especially first-timers—in the packing process. Allow your child to pack each belonging himself to help him feel in control and independent. If your child has an item of comfort, let him pack it, whether that’s a stuffed toy, blanket, or a special flashlight.
“I think it’s helpful to get your kids involved in getting ready—‘Oh, what do you think? We need to get a sleeping bag, let’s go shopping for that’—or helping pack each item. Get them engaged and excited by looking at the pictures on the website while generating excitement about it,” says Silkes.
Keeping in Touch
Most camps avoid cell phone use or calls home during overnight camp. Hearing mom’s voice can often be a trigger. Instead prepare ahead of time with envelopes and stationery for your child to send notes home. Parents can also get involved by writing letters or sending a care package. Some camps will print emails parents send to their child, and scan letters from their campers to email back.
“What I recommend is going the old fashioned way—with writing letters,” says Silkes. “Go out and buy stationery with your child. I buy them a little clipboard they can tuck their paper into, print out addressed labels, and I ask them who they think they’ll want to write to. I send a pack of stamps with envelopes and make it as easy as possible for them. There’s something to be said about handwriting a letter.”
Easing Drop-off Day
When the day finally comes to drop off your first-timer at camp, try to avoid a long, tearful goodbye. Even if you find drop-off day emotional as well, hug your child, remind her how much fun she’ll have, that her counselors are there to help, and that you’ll see her soon. Don’t hang around too long. Lingering or drawing out goodbyes can prolong sadness for your child and make the next day or week ahead that much harder for you both.
Even with all the information possible about overnight camp, the decision of whether or not your child is ready should be individual. You know your child best, so trust your instincts. And if you’re not sure, remember there’s always next year.