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Picking the Right Sleepaway Camp

Considering a sleepaway camp for your child this summer? Here are a few tips to make the experience an adventure they’ll remember long after the campfire songs are mere echoes in their ears.

1. Determine readiness. Overnight camps vary in size, scope, and age, welcoming campers anywhere between the ages of six and 19. Most kids are ready for an overnight camp by age eight or nine. Whether or not a child is ready for overnight camp depends on their personality, and physical and emotional maturity.

Kristina Marchuk, mom of three, says her oldest daughter, Katelyn, 14, went to her first overnight, a weeklong Girl Scouts camp, when she was 11, and her younger daughter, Alyssa, six, a Daisy in the Girl Scouts, will go to her first overnight camp this summer.

Try day camps first to help you introduce your youngster to the camp experience. Marchuk says sleepovers with grandparents and occasional overnights with their Girl Scout troops also helped her daughters prepare for extended sleep-away camps.

2. Consider the length of the camp. Because Alyssa is younger and hasn’t spent many nights away from home without at least big sister present, Marchuk chose a shorter three-day camp to see how she does.

“I’m more nervous about Alyssa. She’s going into second grade and will only be seven by the summer,” says Marchuk. “I’m glad they offer that option to get the kids acclimated to spending time away from parents.”

Trish Barnes, the Executive Women’s Director and K-2 Women’s Director at Camp Kanakuk, and a mom of three children and three step-children ranging in age from 12 to 30, says choosing the right duration of camp definitely depends on the child and your goals.

“The first year, I sent my oldest son [to camp] just for a week because I knew two weeks or a month would have been tough on him. A week would have been out of his comfort zone, but not so overwhelming where it would spin him into anxiety,” says Barnes. “My middle son? He was the complete polar opposite. He was ready to go for a month right off the bat.”

3. Set goals. Besides learning new skills, children learn how to collaborate and live in a community while at camp, gaining self-confidence and independence through problem-solving and teamwork.

“The camping world is an unbelievable place where you can help your kids learn how to face disappointments, have a voice, make new friends, or just get outside their comfort zone and try something new in a very safe environment,” says Barnes, who has worked at Kanakuk for 26 summers. “It’s such a great accomplishment for a kid to get to do that away from home so that they know they accomplished that on their own.”

Also, include your child in deciding on a camp. Maybe your child wishes to hone a specific interest like a sport they enjoy or want to try a variety of new activities like canoeing, horseback riding, or zip-lining.

4. Research the camp. Do you want a faith-based camp or a more secular type of environment? Where is the camp located? Are you seeking a camp that offers a smattering of activities or one that specializes in one of your child’s interests like art, music, or a specific sport, for example?

Look at the camp website. Talk to other parents for referrals. Visit the camp and talk to the camp director.

Ask about counsellor-to-camper ratios, safety policies, and how the camp manages situations like homesickness, anxiety and other medical situations. And listen to your intuition. Does the environment feel safe and well-organized? Is the staff kind, attentive, and nurturing?

5. Manage expectations. Explain to your child that they need to stick with the camp through its duration. By seeing things through to the end, they will grow more independent in their ability to make decisions and more resilient to adversity and discomfort skills, which will prove invaluable as they grow into adulthood.

“Coming home is not an option. Let them know that the expectation is they are going to finish because once you start something, you want to finish it. The only reason you wouldn’t finish something is because you are in harm’s way or it’s going to be ethically, morally bad for you,” says Barnes.

6. Arrive prepared. Together with your child, spend time gathering everything they’ll need at camp. Through diligent research, careful preparation, and a positive attitude, you’ll lower any anxiety they may have and set them up for a successful sleepaway camp experience.

Christa is a nationally-published freelance journalist. She and her husband are the parents of two happy camper sons and a menagerie of pets. Christa is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in the Digital World.

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