Tips for the First-Timer

Some children are ready for overnight camp as young as age 5 or 6, but others may need to wait a few years before they’re away from home for a week.

If your child is fairly self-reliant and comfortable in new surroundings, he’s ready for overnight camping. If he’s never spent the night away from home, a few sleepovers with friends might help prepare him.
A few camps let you test before you commit to a full week or more. The Girl Scouts, for instance, offer a three-day camp, a two-night Mom and Me camp, and longer camping experiences in the summer, all open to Scouts and non-Scouts. Camp Westminster, a Presbyterian-sponsored camp in Conyers, offers two three-night mini-camps for first-timers, regardless of church affiliation.
“First time campers can find just the right amount of excitement with a Short Stop session offered at our Girl Scout Camp properties like Camp Meriwether,” says Debbie McDowell Tate, outdoor program manager for Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta. “In three action-packed days, girls can try out canoeing, hiking, games, swimming, and s’mores by a campfire.
Experts say your child might be the best judge of whether he or she is ready for camp. You can help your child get excited about the experience and involve him in picking out a camp with activities he would enjoy. And it’s important to emphasize all the reasons your child will love it – fun activities, new friends, new skills, a bit of independence – and not whether he’ll miss his parents.
Nancy Jones, camp director at Valley View Ranch in North Georgia, says it best with four simple words: “Homesickness starts at home.” She says that parents often transfer their own worries about camp onto their children. Before camp, give your kids a hug and kiss and tell them they will have a wonderful time, Jones says.
Other camp directors speak of the importance of mail – both email and snail mail, depending on your camp’s policy. It makes kids happy to receive letters from home, directors say.
If you can visit the camp ahead of time, it lessens the anxiety level, too, directors say. If it’s not possible to visit, scour the camp’s website for videos and photos so the camp will seem familiar.
Choosing a camp that’s close to your home is a good idea to reassure your first-time camper. Experts also recommend that beginning campers try a short-duration camp, perhaps one or two weeks.
First-time campers might want to bring along a photo from home, plus some games or books – if the camp allows it – to share with the new friends they’ll make.
Angela Sullivan, camp director at Camp Chatuga in Blue Ridge, SC, suggests first-timers should have a few icebreaker questions in mind to get conversations started with new friends. She also reminds them, “Be a friend to get a friend.”
Most children get over any initial nervousness about overnight camp within a few hours, after they start making friends and having fun.

– Amanda Miller Allen