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Ask Dr. Bronwyn

Sleepaway Camp

From how to know if your child's ready and packing all the things, to saying goodbye and handling homesickness, sending your child to sleep away camp can be anxiety-ridden, to say the least. In this two-part series, Dr. Bronwyn of seedlingsgroup explains everything you need to know to ensure happy campers. First up, how to know if your child's ready and the tools you'll need to prepare them in advance.

Written By Dr. Bronwyn Charlton of seedlingsgroup

How do you know if your child is ready for sleepaway camp? Is there a recommended age?

It’s hard to give an ideal age because kids differ so much when it comes to development. Some very young children become part of the camp community quickly and easily, while some older campers take time to adapt. So, decisions to send or not depend mostly on your child, especially if she’s young.

If your child is 6-8 years and has expressed interest, your answers to the following four questions should be given the most weight for determining if he’s ready. 1. Does he easily sleep over at a friend’s house, or spend the week at grandma’s? 2. Is he clingy in new situations? 3. Does he enjoy group activities? 4. Can he swim?

Then, even if everything is telling you it’s the right time for your child, before plopping down the deposit to save him a spot, ask the camp about the age distribution of campers. If it turns out your kid is one of only two seven-year-olds, you might want to wait a year.

If she’s older than ten and still anxious about going, her reluctance shouldn’t be the determining factor. Chances are she’ll be just as hesitant at 13, and maybe even at 18 when it’s time for college, since older kids’ trepidation about being away from home usually is more about temperament or inexperience with independence than anything else. The truth is, being away from family for the first time is a lot easier to handle at 9 or 10 than it is while also dealing with puberty, and, trying to connect with kids who’ve already spent previous summers together forming tight friendships.

How should I prepare my child for sleepaway camp in advance?

The weeks leading up to your child’s departure require both physical and emotional preparations.

Pack, Pack, Pack

Shop, label and pack with your child. Use the packing list to guide your gathering of items and include him in the process so he’ll know what he has and where everything is. He’ll also learn how to pack, which is an important life skill. Make sure prohibited items stay out of his bag, and that a few comfort items (e.g., pictures, special pillow), and conversation starters (e.g., MadLibs, nail polish, a frisbee) go in.

Simplify Correspondence

The simpler you make it for her to be in touch, the more likely you’ll hear from her. Send her with stationary, pre-addressed envelopes, stamps and pens. If you really want to guarantee you’ll get the details you're after, include a card with fill-in-the-blank questions (e.g., her counselors’ names, how many kids are in her bunk, what she likes best about camp so far, and even what she ate that night for dinner, etc.).

Make Camp Connections

However tempting, don’t blow off the camp orientation or get-togethers. They’ll help to ease anxieties about what to expect. You can also find out from the camp if there are any other new campers from your area that your child could connect with beforehand. If he’s lucky, he might make a camp friend before he even gets there.

Stay Positive

Chat about camp in a casual and positive way. Avoid reminiscing about your own camp adventures that might freak out your child, like the time there was a huge spider in your cabin. Instead, ask her about what she’s most looking forward to, or tell her about about an activity you loved when you were at camp. Watch camp videos on the website together. They’re sure to get you both more excited. You can also encourage your child to set some camp goals, like passing the lifeguard test or learning to sail. Thinking about what it will take to accomplish them will be a good distraction from worried thoughts. Plus, the kid who comes home from camp will likely be much more confident, having achieved them.

Manage Expectations

Although camp is an amazing experience for most kids, things won’t always be perfect. There’s bound to be some counselors she likes more than others and bunkmates who she thinks are annoying. Make sure she knows that missing home is a normal part of being away, but that it doesn’t mean she’s not having fun. Try not to trivialize concerns or offer glib responses. “Don’t worry, you’ll love it!” or “I bet you won’t even want to come home,” may set the expectation-bar too high and stress out your child. Instead, empathize with the anxiety he’s feeling and answer as many of his questions as you can, by going through the camp website and handbook together (e.g., activity options, infirmary information, number of children in a bunk, the daily schedule, wake-up and bed-times, who to seek out if feeling homesick, camp traditions, free time options and even the bathroom location!).

Give your child practice with more independence before camp starts. Encourage him to manage his self-care (teeth brushing, showering, hair brushing), keep track of his things, clean up after himself, and make healthy food choices with fewer reminders in the weeks leading up to camp. These are some of the skills that will be expected of him once he gets there, and you won’t be around to make sure that he does them. Granted, counselors aren’t going to let him come home with a mouth full of cavities, but they’ll really appreciate it if he can already do most of these things on his own.