Sending your child to camp for the first time is a major milestone for a child, but how do parents know if their child is ready and when the right time is for their child to embark on this new adventure? Whether you are considering day or overnight camp, there are many deciding factors and tips for parents when making this important decision.
The right age for camp: When is the right age for a child to begin camp? Josh Male, owner and director of Gate Hill Day Camp in Rockland County feels there really is no right age to start camp. “Most children are ready for a day camp experience between ages 3-6. Ultimately, the decision to start a summer camp experience depends on factors that are specific to your child’s needs and interests and the goals you have for your child.” Lauren Bernstein, owner and director of Camp Walden, a co-ed overnight camp in the Adirondacks agrees. “There is no perfect age to begin camp. Some children are ready earlier and some later but both are okay. Don’t get caught up in what your friends say about having to start overnight camp at a certain age because socially your child won’t fit in after that time. If your child isn’t ready, start later and find the right camp at the time when your child is ready.”
Best ways for parents to determine readiness: Most parents can just sense when their child is ready for camp. “See how your child responds to watching a camp video and discussing camp. If you went to camp yourself, you can also talk about your own experience,” Bernstein suggests. “Discuss the exciting opportunities available at camp and see how they react. Touring a camp or attending Rookie Days can also help you determine your child’s readiness. Often times, friends or an older sibling going to camp will trigger children to talk about being interested. It’s ok for a child to be nervous about doing something for the first time but don’t let nervousness allow you to think your child isn’t ready.” Male feels kids are typically ready for day camp before their parents are. “As for child readiness, parents should focus on things like potty training, showing an interest in group activities and the ability to participate in other programs where parent involvement is not required,” he says. “The reality is that camp is an ideal environment for pre-school aged children to learn the skills necessary for group and school based settings such as making friends, trying new things, independence, and resilience.”
Tips for preparing your child for camp: “Young children transition best when parents have provided several opportunities for their child to feel safe and excited about their new day camp,” Male comments. “First, parents should be excited and committed to the idea of day camp to demonstrate camp is going to be a fun safe place. Attending the facility and meeting the director and other staff starts the process for a child to feel comfortable with the place and people they will be spending their summer with.” Bernstein feels that once you make a decision on a camp, you shouldn’t over discuss it with your child. “A school year for an 8-year-old is a very long time. Sometimes parents get ahead of themselves and like to plan ahead but over orchestrating camp preparations too early can cause more angst then good,” she says. Bernstein also feels a great way to set your child up for success is to let them know how much you trust and believe in the camp you are sending them to. “Tell your child about all the wonderful opportunities at camp and that you know they will love it. Normalize homesickness and say to them that they will of course miss home and that you will miss them but you know they will have a great time. Don’t promise to pick them up if they don’t like it,” she notes. “No day is perfect at home or at camp so if you made a pick up deal with your child, they will have it in their head they can leave if they are having a difficult moment.”
How camps help children prepare for camp: Camps do so many things to help children get ready for the camp experience. “Camps host open houses and pre-camp orientation which are great opportunities to see the camp again and to help children in the preparation process,” Male says. Camp Walden does email buddies where the camp will connect families in close proximity. “Often times these email exchanges will lead to facetime with the campers or get-togethers. We also group campers by age on the bus so they start acclimating right away and the camp experience begins from the minute they are on the bus,” Bernstein says. “Meet and greets before camp are nice opportunities for campers to connect with the director and other key staff. Before they get to camp, they feel more relaxed knowing the director and that they will be taken care of.” Keep in mind that when you send your child to camp, you are forming a partnership with the camp leadership team. If you need assistance in helping your child prepare for camp, let the director know. Some children need a little more hand holding and a good director will know how to help your child prepare for the wonderful camp experience ahead.