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Close to Home or Out on Their Own - Which Camp Works Best for Your Child?

Growing up in South Africa, sleepover camps weren’t nearly as popular as they are in North America. (Or maybe it was just me who didn’t care to know much about them.) I hated the idea of not having a washroom in my cabin and having to make my way to one with only a flashlight to guide me. And I didn’t want to sit around campfires listening to ghost stories that I feared would keep me awake at night.

My husband, on the other hand, looked forward to the entire sleeping-away-from-home experience. He loved the independence, the campouts, sharing a cabin with 11 other boys his age, trekking through wild wooded areas and portaging to the river. I think he especially loved the friendships he made and all the activities, such as windsurfing and archery, he might never have been exposed to closer to home.

After our older daughter was grown up enough to choose between day camp and sleepover camp, I had to think really carefully about how I was going to help her make her decision. I ultimately encouraged my husband to play a larger role in sharing his positive experiences with her about camp. Since she already had a good taste of spending days away from us at summer day camps, she was then able to compare the two. Being more reticent and less adventurous in nature, she ultimately chose to stick closer to home.

Over the years, she enjoyed her experience at a couple of wonderful day camps. She loved the spirit and camaraderie on the bus to camp. The campers and counselors named their buses, decorated the interiors and sang songs to and from camp. Far enough from home and surrounded by nature, she felt as if she was experiencing the great outdoors. She loved swimming - both instructional and recreational - twice a day, and especially loved the giant waterslide. She loved the farm animals, the arts and crafts, the drama and dancing classes, and participating in all the sports activities. At the end of the day, she arrived home, exhausted but looking forward to returning the following day. Ultimately, she became a counselor at a day camp and continued to enjoy that experience.

My younger daughter is more like her dad. She is an explorer and a lover of nature. She is less bothered by creepy crawlies and adapts easily to new situations. Now that the time has come to think about going to sleepover camp, as many of her friends are, she is fully contemplating it.

Here are some things to consider when choosing between day and sleepover camp:

Know your child. Every child is different and while it’s true that some children need to be encouraged to take on challenges and overcome fears, others can be quite traumatized if they are forced into an experience they are not ready for.

Slow and steady. I’m not a big fan of sending very young kids (six or seven year olds) to sleepover camp. In my opinion, young children are better suited to enjoying activity days closer to home. For a first-time camp experience, children may do better with shorter periods away from home (up to 10 days) rather than going away for a month as a first-time experience.

It’s best to try to find a camp that offers activities that meet your child’s interests rather than sending your child to the most popular camp or the one closest to home.

Engage your child in the decision between day or sleepover camp - even though children do not have the life experience to make this kind of decision alone. Let them have their say. If possible, visit campsites ahead of making your decision so that you can all take a look around the campsite and meet the counselors and staff.

When possible, it is best to have your child attend camp - especially for the first time - with a friend or family member. Chances are they will branch out very quickly, but most children say that it’s comforting to have a familiar face close by.

Sara Dimerman, aka HelpMeSara, is registered with the College of Psychologists of Ontario and provides counseling to individuals, couples and families out of the Parent Education & Resource Centre. She is the author of two parenting books, Am I A Normal Parent? and Character Is the Key. For more information, visit helpmesara.com

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