Going away to camp can be one of the most rewarding experiences in a child's life—you just have to consider a few important details, like which camp is best for her and how to prepare your family for the long separation. Whether your kid is a seasoned camper or is embarking on her first summer away from home, these tips we've gathered from camp counselors and directors across the country will help guarantee your child has a summer she'll remember forever.
1. Relax—we know what we’re doing.
It can be nerve-wracking to leave your child in the care of people you hardly know. And movie depictions of lazy teen counselors who care more about sunbathing than keeping an eye on the kids don’t help ease your worries. But rest assured: The vast majority of counselors take their jobs seriously. “We train our staff on everything from how to manage a group of kids to how to teach effectively and how to perform first aid,” says Sarah Horner Fish, director at Tom Sawyer Camps in Pasadena, California. And according to Mary,* who was a counselor at a sleep-away camp in northeastern Pennsylvania for four years, staff members “want to give your kids the same amazing experience we had when we were campers, so we aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize that.”
2. In some ways camp is just as important as school.
Any counselor will tell you that camp is about so much more than doing a few craft projects or playing field games. “There may not be a blackboard and a bunch of desks, but it’s really a continuation of the education process,” says Jack Driben, co–managing director of The Camp Experts & Teen Summers, a camp advisory service for parents. “It’s a chance for your child to learn independence, social skills and confidence.” As Sarah puts it, camp picks up where many schools leave off. “Teachers are so focused on teaching math, reading and science that they don’t often have the opportunity to explain how to handle conflicts or deal with hurt feelings. At summer camp you really get to focus on social skills.”
3. Stay in touch—but not too much.
You certainly don’t want to drop off your kids at camp and not speak to them again until you pick them up in August, but too much contact can hamper their experience. “In general, the less children speak to their parents, the less homesick they are,” says Driben. “So many times they’ll be doing just fine until they talk to their mom or dad for the first time and that’s when the tears start.” Because of this, many camps have strict rules regarding phone usage, and some even set up “phone dates” before camp begins. If your daughter is a little anxious about being away, after dropping her off, try to wait a week or so before you call her so she has a chance to settle in and make friends, which, according to Driben, usually takes three to five days. And don't think you can sneak in some texts when counselors aren't looking: Cell phones are banned at almost every camp, and are collected from kids as soon as they arrive, says Joanne Paltrowitz, co–managing director of The Camp Experts & Teen Summers. “Some parents give their child a second cell phone, but it’s not worth it. There’s hardly any cell service where most camps are located and it will run out of battery anyway. Don’t even bother trying.” However, writing letters and sending a few care packages is a great way to stay in touch without being too overbearing.
4. Tell us about your child’s medical needs ahead of time.
Camp staff is more than happy to accommodate everything from food allergies to more serious medical conditions—as long as they’re aware of them ahead of time. All camps have an on-site wellness center staffed by either a registered nurse or doctor, who administers medications. But counselors still want to be informed of any existing conditions so they can plan accordingly. “I had a camper once whose mom dropped her off on the first day and told me that she had epilepsy,” recalls Mary. “Though there are nurses on staff, I feel like I should have been briefed about her medical condition in advance. Instead, I was starting off at a disadvantage because I was getting to know her plus a cabin of 10 other girls at the same time.” To ensure that your child is properly cared for—and to give his counselor ample time to prepare—call the camp’s director a couple of weeks before camp starts to brief him or her on what precautions need to be taken.
5. Don’t send your kids to camp with anything too expensive to lose.
A stuffed animal that your daughter can’t bear to part with is one thing, but when it comes to fancy jewelry, designer jeans or expensive electronics, leave them at home—or don’t be surprised when she comes home empty-handed. “We can’t keep track of these items, and when we get a call from a parent asking where they are, we just don’t know,” says Mary. “They could have gone home with another child, or they could be covered in mud. Just don’t bring them—that solves the problem.” And when it comes to everyday items, like sweatshirts and sneakers, be sure to label them. Elizabeth Jenkins, who was a counselor at Camp Mystic in Hunt, Texas, recommends Mabel’s Labels, which can be stuck on everything from thermoses to T-shirts and are dishwasher-, microwave- and laundry-safe.
6. Give your child a lesson in housekeeping 101.
If you’ve been in the habit of tidying up after your son or daughter, a little tutorial in cleaning might be in order before camp begins. “Kids need to learn how to make their bed before they get to camp, even if they have a mother or housekeeper who normally does it for them,” says Jenkins. But their responsibilities go beyond just bed-making: Most camps expect the campers to keep their living quarters in tip-top shape, from keeping their own possessions in order to sweeping, mopping and cleaning the bathroom. “Cabins get inspected and campers get graded on their tidiness, so everyone’s going to be mad at the one kid who can’t pick up after himself.”
7. Not every camp is going to be a perfect fit for your child.
Think camps are one-size-fits-all? Think again. Doing your research can make all the difference when it comes to a successful summer away for your child. Check out different resources, like The Camp Experts & Teen Summers, which provides free summer camp consultations to parents and represents more than 950 camps and summer programs worldwide, and the American Camp Association, which has listings for 2,400 accredited camps across the country, to find out what possibilities are out there. Then speak to camp directors about the culture and environment before you sign up your child. Tell them if your daughter is shy, gregarious or needs plenty of one-on-one attention in order to thrive. Also ask if they provide access to religious services, like church on Sunday, if that’s important to your family, and always mention if your child is in a special needs program, since some camps are better equipped to handle such campers. Finally, consider your kid's interests before you commit to any camp. If your son thrives in the creative arts, six weeks at baseball camp isn't going to be a great experience for him—and might be a waste of money for you.
8. If your child gets picked on, chances are she’ll fit in at camp.
If your daughter tends to get bullied or left out at school, sending her to live with a bunch of girls her age for weeks on end can seem like a questionable idea. But camp is actually a place where kids who don’t fit in at school can blossom because they spend time with like-minded kids, helping them gain confidence. “You can really be yourself there, and it’s a lot easier to get to know people because there’s no pretending. Kids have left everything from home behind so you really see them open up,” says Mary. “Everybody is friends with everybody. It’s completely magical.”
9. If your child is nervous about leaving home, start slowly.
There’s a difference between a little apprehension about going away for the summer and debilitating separation anxiety. If your son is insisting that he doesn’t want to go away, “start with day camp and then move toward sleep-away camp in small doses,” says Driben. “Then, once he gets more comfortable with the idea, sign him up for a partial summer next year.” There are a variety of camp lengths to choose from, ranging from one week to seven weeks, though Driben advises a minimum of two weeks so that kids aren’t forced to leave the minute they finally settle in.
10. Put some thought into care packages.
Most camps will not allow food to be sent in care packages, since snacks can attract pests and critters, and may aggravate other campers’ food allergies. “Don’t even try—it will get taken away,” says Mary. According to Jenkins, crafts items, like markers, stickers and sketch pads, are always a hit, as are T-shirts or baseball caps with the camp’s name on them. “Some kids are also excited to see hints of home, like newspaper clippings or a photo of their pet, but depending on how happy they are at camp, these things can make them even more homesick,” she says. “Parents should never give their kids the sense that they’re missing out on something fabulous back home.” And be sure to check with the camp before you send anything, since many have rules when it comes to how often you can send a box and what sizes are permissible.
*Some names have been changed.