Thinking about overnight camp for your child? Attending overnight camp is an important experience for a child, helping them to gain independence, self-confidence and resilience, which are all skills that are needed to become successful adults. But how do parents know when the right time is to send their child to camp?
Many parents focus on the age of their child to figure out when the right time is for overnight camp, however, age isn’t the only factor when considering readiness. While there is no specific sign that can tell you that NOW is the time, there are certain indicators that can signal that a child is ready for the experience. “I don’t feel there is a specific age to begin going to overnight camp. It’s more dependent on an individual child’s developmental levels and maturity,” says Marc Rauch, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and director of Camp Kinder Ring, a coed overnight camp in Hopewell Junction, NY. “It’s important to closely examine and explore a child’s overall functioning in differing environments, as well as their personality, social skills, temperament and how they handle change and different situations. Does the child have the ability to self-soothe, display effective coping mechanisms and effectively verbalize their needs and wants? Some other readiness indicators include a child’s ability to appropriately separate from parents, accept guidance and supervision from others, a desire to sleep at varying peers households, eagerness to have playdates and a child’s displaying of an ability to meet new successes when challenged.”
Often parents feel their child is ready to go away to camp, yet their child is hesitant. Laurie Rinke, director of Camp Echo Lake, a coed overnight camp in the Adirondacks says, “The biggest factor that determines a camper’s readiness is their parents’ ability to let their child borrow their confidence that they are ready for camp. If a parent says to their child ‘we found the right camp for you, we trust the directors, we know you can do this, and we know you will love camp,’ children can use their parents confidence to bolster their own. When a parent gives a child the sense that camp is the right place for them, that helps a child feel confident.” Renee Flax, camper placement specialist for the American Camp Association, NY & NJ feels there is a big difference between gentle persuasion and pushing a child to go to camp. “Taking your child to visit the camp so they can see for themselves what camp is all about and meeting with the camp director to have them talk to your child are both helpful tools. However, if your child is adamant about not wanting to go, you do need to listen to what their concerns are. Some of them are fixable issues that can be resolved such as they don’t want to go for too long a period of time or they want to know someone at the camp.”
Once you make the decision to send your child to camp, preparing them for what camp will be like can help set your child up for a positive experience. “Think about the things that your child will do at camp that they may or may not do at home like changing the sheets on their bed, combing their hair, applying sunscreen, and taking a shower independently,” commented Rinke. “Your child certainly doesn’t have to perfect these tasks and counselors will help them, but familiarizing your child with these tasks can allow them to feel more confident about doing them.” Rauch says the manner in which a parent sets the stage for camp can ultimately seal the fate of whether or not the experience is successful. “Parents shouldn’t spend the entire academic year leading up to camp talking about it. The focus needs to be incrementally introduced to a child, especially one who has some level of concern. When you talk about camp, always focus on the positives that lie ahead and don’t harp on how much a child will be missed, on how different home will be without them or on things that can go wrong. It’s also important for parents to work hard to not put their own anxieties about their children leaving home onto their children. The more comfortable a parent is with the overnight camp experience, the more comfortable the child will be.”
Camps also offer a lot of events and resources to help your child prepare for camp. “There are new camper events, new parent events and Big Brother or Sister programs to give you and your child the confidence that they are going to love camp. I also encourage parents to read all emails, blogs, and parent information from your camp as there is valuable information that will help you and your child,” says Rinke.
Flax says, “The right time for a child to go to an overnight camp is when they are ready! Don’t worry what other people are doing – you need to assess how your child is doing emotionally and how mature they are before deciding to send them to an overnight program.”
Jess Michaels is director of communications for the American Camp Association, New York and New Jersey and a frequent contributor to New York Family magazines.