Is my child ready for overnight camp?

Going to sleepover camp for the first time is an important event in a child’s life. It’s often the first long separation for parents and child and it signals an increasing independence. Parents of early elementary-aged children wonder when and if their child should take this big step.

     Many factors determine her readiness to be away from home for an extended period. Age is a major consideration. A six-year-old is too young for even a one-week program, but some seven- and eight- years olds and many nine-year-olds can handle being away for one to four weeks. Sometimes the maturity of a child, rather than her age, will determine how successful her camp experience will be.

     A child who wants to go to overnight camp will have an easier time than one whose parents have convinced her to go. Some kids, especially those with older siblings, are anxious to start sleepover camp. They may have felt a great sense of loss seeing a brother or sister go off: “My life will be ruined when Marissa goes away!” “It’s not fair, Mom. You let Stephen go away to camp. I want to go too!” A young child who’s heard camp stories from siblings, friends, parents, and other relatives may have exciting visions of overnight camp: “Molly says you have so much fun, you forget you have parents.”

     A young child who’s not interested in overnight camp shouldn’t be sent. If parents, anxious for time alone, push her into a program before she’s ready, they may pay for the mistake later. She may be angry and resentful or feel insecure about leaving home before she’s comfortable doing so. One eight-year-old told her friend, “You cry a lot at camp because you miss your parents.”

     If a child does want to go to overnight camp, how can her parents tell if she’s ready? They should ask themselves these questions: Does she enjoy overnights with friends or relatives? Is she asking to go to camp? Does she like lots of activity? Does she make friends easily? Can they imagine her recovering quickly from the inevitable homesickness she’ll feel at camp? How does she deal with small hurts and frustrations? Can she handle a lack of family contact for one to four weeks? Many camps have done away with visiting days and allow no personal phone calls.

     Parents should ask if their child has any real idea of the time involved. She may want to go away for two weeks without realizing how long that is, since most six- to nine-year-olds have a changing view of time. A birthday four months away is coming “soon.” A TV show that she’s anxious to see the next week may not be on for a “long time.”

     Once parents have decided she’s ready for camp, their decisions about the summer will hinge on finding a camp that meets their needs. They should seek recommendations from other families and send away for information. Some camps offer videos for home viewing. Some set up slide shows for prospective campers or put families in touch with former campers.

     If parents think ahead, they can visit a camp the summer before sending their child. Both parents and child may be surprised at what they see. One young girl was dismayed to find that campers sleep on cots in a bunkhouse rather than in beds in bedrooms. She lost her interest. Another child was delighted with the craft and drama projects she saw: “I love it. This is the camp I’m going to.”

     Parents should gather as much information about a prospective camp as they can. What is the counselor/child ratio? What is the camp director like? How many kids attend the camp? What activities are offered? How structured and full is the day? Does each camper pick a specialty? Are there field trips and special events? How is discipline handled? Are doctors and nurse on duty at all times? Can a child receive allergy shots? How are dietary restrictions accommodated? What strategies are used when campers get homesick?

     As you make your decision, don’t be swayed by pressure from others. Some parents may try to convince you to send your child: “What are you waiting for? Don’t be so overprotective.” Others may try to persuade you to keep her home. Do what seems best for your family. Many kids never go to overnight camp, and many who do, wait until they’re ten, twelve, or even fourteen years old. The right time to send your child is when she wants to go and is mature enough to have a good time.

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