To help parents determine whether their child is ready for an overnight camp experience, Atlanta Parent turned to the experts: directors of overnight camps in this region.
Q: When are most kids “ready” for an overnight camp – and why?
A: Kids who say they want to go to camp and who have already spent overnight time away from home (such as at a friend’s or grandmother’s house), are more likely to enjoy the camping
experience and engage more readily, our experts agree. Camp Thunderbird, for example, accepts campers as young as 6 for one-week sessions. Camp Westminster, says Rogers, has developed a three-night
“mini session” for first-time campers who have never been away from home for more than a night. “It introduces them to a similar, though shorter version of the full overnight camp experience,” says Rogers, “but with a higher counselor to camper ratio.” “Most parents can tell when their child is ready for sleep away camp when they ask to go to camp,” says Lori Waldman of Blue Ridge Camp. Besides having
some experience spending a night away from parents, she adds that kids “should absolutely be able to care for their hygiene on their own.”
Q: How can parents help ensure that a camp is the right fit for a child?
A: Parents should gather as much information as they can, Rogers says. There’s lots to learn by going online and by attending open house tours at prospective camps. Lori and Joey Waldman of Blue
Ridge Camp suggest that parents make a list of what they are looking for in a camp and then prioritize. For example: Are you looking for a small camp where the owners are on site and available, or do the specific activities matter most? Parents should speak or meet with camp directors and ask for references from other families that have attempted the camp. The “most valuable indicator of a camp’s quality,” Rogers says, “is often the word-of-mouth testimony of campers and parents” who have already experienced a particular camp. “Try to find others from your church or community who have attended a camp you’re interested in.”
Q: Why is going away from home good for a child?
A: It’s “the ultimate destiny of the great majority of children,” Rogers says. Kids “seek and need to exercise a growing independence from their parents.” Overnight camp provides “great opportunity to practice those elements of independence that parents have been teaching, while in a safe, structured environment and in the care of a well-trained and helpful counseling staff.” To boot, camp provides “challenging activities designed to encourage and develop young minds and bodies.” Carraway of Camp Thunderbird points out several ways overnight camps benefit kids; these include “developing a sense of
independence, developing and practicing decision-making skills, learning to work cooperatively with others, learning to make friends, and developing responsibility.
Q: How does a camp experience help a youngster develop character and responsibility?
A: An excellent staff exemplifies good character and behavior traits, says Reyes. “Campers will be taught to care for themselves and their belongings as well as look out for others in their group.”
Attending a sleep-away camp, says Kelly, “helps children learn how to form positive relationships with one another – often through trial and error. While attending a camp, children are forced to problem-solve
while sharing a living space.” Camp encourages kids to interact well and work together to accomplish tasks, adds Rogers. “Children need to witness and be a part of sound social interaction. They not only
experience the differences and similarities of other individuals, but also have an opportunity to practice the life skills they’ve been taught in a real-world environment.”
Q: Can you discuss a common concern that parents have when they are deciding whether their youngster is ready to be away from home for a week or two – or longer?
A: One of the more common concerns, says Brim of Camp Juliette Low, is whether a camper should bring a friend with her “and if she does not bring a friend, will she meet anyone nice?” Brim says that she and
Kelly always tell parents that while coming to camp with a friend may help a camper’s comfort level, if a camper does not come with a friend, “she will have one by lunch on the first day” and likely will “have a different one by dinner! If she wants to make friends, she will, because opportunities abound.”
Q: What advice do you find your self giving parents most often?
A: “Let them go . . . let them have fun,” Brim says. Yes, they will miss you, “but they are also having a whole lot of fun, meeting a lot of new people, and learning new things. Being the person left at home is not
nearly as fun as being the person at camp!” Indeed, the parent is often more homesick than their child away at camp, adds Kelly. “Many parents want to call and talk with the child while their child is attending camp,” she says. But when the parent talks to a camper on the phone, it can bring on homesickness. She and Brim advise parents to “shower their children with letters or emails instead of interrupting their fun with a phone call.” Advice that Rogers gives most often: “Children are usually much more ready for a week at camp than we think they are, and often far more ready for the experience than the parent is.”
Adds Reyes of Deer Run Camps: If parents believe their child is ready, they should do everything in their power to affirm, encourage, and support their child’s camp experience.
Q: How do you deal with a firsttime camper who has a tough case of homesickness at camp?
A: Homesickness, says Rogers, is viewed as “a great opportunity for one-onone interaction and relationship development. Our staff is trained in various ways of helping campers communicate and work through
their concerns while lovingly keeping them occupied and moving toward an end to their homesickness.” Camp directors report that most cases of homesickness last only until the camper gets into his daily activity time, and rarely last past the second night of a camp week. Counselors, Brim says, are constantly engaging campers to talk about their day, their favorite things, what books they are reading,
etc. Homesick campers are encouraged to write down all the fun things they have done in a letter home so that their parents can share in the fun. Brim says that on occasion camp directors have called a camper’s home to get a parent’s advice for any techniques to use with the child who’s feeling blue. “Every now and then, all the camper needs is to hear from Mom that everything at home is fine and that Mom
and Dad hope she is having a great time.”
Q: Any suggestions for parents to help prevent their child from being a homesick camper?
A: Help your kids practice making some of the decisions at home that will also be making when at camp, says Carraway. “For instance, parents can allow their children to practice selecting clothing to wear from one day to the next” Parents can help prevent homesickness, she says, by familiarizing their kids with camp routines. “Children who know what to expect often feel more secure, even when experiencing camp for the first time.” Also, parents should email and/or write letters to children while they are at camp. “Parents are encouraged to express excitement about the experience being enjoyed by their children.”
Set up the experience well, says Rogers. “Let your child know you’re excited for them, that you know they will have a great time and that you trust their counselors and the camp. Don’t make promises to them like,
‘If you feel bad, just call me and I’ll come and get you.’ And, don’t send emails loaded with worrisome comments or questions. If your child feels you’re worried or fearful, they’ll look for the reasons you’re concerned and lack confi dence in their camp experience.” Encourage your kids “to be independent and to learn how to lean on themselves,” advises Joey Waldman of Blue Ridge Camp. Remind your kids that “camp is not forever but it is to have a good time.”
Q: Do you allow campers to use their cellphones, their iPods, their computers, or other electronics?
A: No, says Rogers. “We focus on relationship in our activities and cabin life. The distractions caused by tech items usually detract from the relationships developed during the campers’ time at camp.” Likewise, Kelly of Camp Juliette Low says that they ask that all electronics be left at home: “Our focus is educating campers about the importance of relationships with nature and other campers.” At this time, Deer Run Camps does not allow allow phones and other electronic items at camp. The camp does not offer a computer lab nor does it implement electronics into camp programs. Even the staff goes without cell phones at camp. Says Reyes: “We feel it is important, specifi cally in today’s culture, to disconnect from all distractions for a short period of time. We have seen the benefi ts and the campers realize they can live a few days without social media.”
Q: How do you deal with the hurt feelings of campers who do not get mail or email from their parents?
A: “We encourage all parents to make sure their camper receives mail of some type,” says Kelly. “We also encourage the different units at camp to have secret pals. The different campers write each other and
sometimes even give gifts to each other.” Adds Rogers: “We do our best not to highlight the camper who gets mail or email over those who do not,” Rogers says, “but when we see a camper is greatly concerned
about a lack of communication, we may send an email home reminding parents that emails, letters and gift boxes are great ways to enhance the camper experience.”
by Julie Bookman
Andy Rogers, director, Camp Wesminster in Conyers, Ga.
Kappy Kelly and Nancy Brim, co-directors of Camp Juliette Low in Cloudland, Ga.
Fred Reyes, camps and recreation director of Deer Run Camps and Retreats in Thompson’s Station, Tenn.
Lori and Joey Waldman, co-directors of Blue Ridge Camp in Mountain City, Ga.
Kaye Carraway, associate resident camp director for YMCA Camp Thunderbird in Lake Wylie, S.C.