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Getting ready for overnight camp: tips for first-timers – and their parents

There are few things more exciting in a kid’s life than their first sleepaway camp. How do you prepare your kids – and yourself – for this big event? Drawing on my own experiences as the parent of a teenager who’s a happy camper, as well as conversations with other parents, I’ve identified seven things you should do.

Prepare For Camp Together

You want your kids to take ownership of this exciting experience. To do that, prepare for camp together: shop together for all the stuff on the packing list and pack jointly using luggage that isn’t too difficult to carry. You should also build excitement by talking to your kids about all the incredible things they’re going to experience, and explain the rules and expectations of the camp. 

Have a Sleepover – Or Two

Your kids are going to be away from you, possibly for the first time, for an extended period of time. Some kids have absolutely no problem adjusting; others need to dip their feet in the water slowly, so to speak. Organize a couple of sleepovers with their friends – and do it at their friends’ houses – to get them used to being away from you.

Speak to Parents In Your Neighborhood

No matter how confident your kids are that they’re going to be just fine without you, it’s always a good idea to bring them some comfort from home to camp. Reach out to other parents from your kids’ school or your neighborhood to see if they plan on sending their kids to the same camp. Most camps let parents request that their kids bunk with one or more of their regular friends. They’re going to meet lots of other kids and make lots of new friends as well.  

Contribute Money To The Candy Store

Most sleepaway camps have a store where kids can buy candy with money that parents have contributed to an account. Ask the camp director what amount parents typically contribute to this account – and then contribute the same amount. Kids compare themselves to other kids, and no kid wants to be the odd one out with less money to buy candy than everyone else. Conversely, you don’t want to over-contribute to the candy account.

Communication and Care Packages

Find out what the camp’s policy is when it comes to communicating with your kids via email, letters and care packages. Are you allowed a certain number of emails or letters? How many care packages are you permitted to send, and are their rules about what you can and can’t send? If you’re allowed to include toys in the care packages, choose things that your kids can enjoy together with the other campers, like Frisbees and playing cards, instead of toys that only they can enjoy themselves. For our son’s first sleepaway camp, my spouse and I sent several decks of playing cards with the first care package. The kids ended up playing cards with the camp counselors until late at night.   

Don't Hang Around Too Long When You Arrive

When you finally arrive at camp for the drop-off, do yourself – and your kids – the favor and leave once they’re settled in. Bring them to their cabin, help them unpack if necessary, and then extract yourself as quickly as possible. Your kids are eager to meet all the other campers, and there’s nothing as embarrassing as a parent who lingers for what appears to be no good reason. Let them start bonding to and connecting with their counselors and the other kids. 

Don’t Worry - They’re Going To Be Fine

Once you’re back in the car, take a deep breath, and then head home. Your kids are going to be fine, and so will you. Trust me.

Tanni Haas, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Department of Communication Arts, Sciences and Disorders at the City University of New York – Brooklyn College.


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