There are few things more exciting in a kid’s life than their first overnight camp. How do you prepare your kids – and yourself – for this big event? Drawing on my own experience as the parent and conversations with other parents and camp directors, I’ve identified several things you should do.

Prepare for Camp Together

You want your kids to take ownership of this exciting experience. If you have the opportunity, tour the camp in advance, so you and your child can know what to expect.

“Watch the camp video,” says Daniel Weatherby of Camp Rockmont for Boys. “That way, kids will have an idea of what they want to do when they get to camp, like blacksmithing or swimming. They can start looking forward to the memories they’ll create at camp.”

Weatherby recommends getting to know the team. “We are in a partnership with parents. It’s a boy’s experience, but it’s also a family experience. Not only is it the child’s first time away from home, but it’s the parent’s first time with their boy away from home.”

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.

“Homesickness starts at home. It is often the parents that unintentionally plant the seed of worry in their child’s head by saying things like, ‘I’ll miss you so much! What will I do without you? Won’t you miss me? I’m going to be so lonely/sad without you’ over and over again,” says Chelsea Manning of Valley View Ranch. “These sentiments, though well-intentioned, can start to make kids feel guilty and pressured into not enjoying their time to the fullest.”

Have a Sleepover – Or Two

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

Weatherby recalls staying at his grandparent’s house for several nights in a row to prepare for being away from home as a young boy. “Remind them that they’ve had other firsts: first day of school, first day at camp. They’ve actually done a lot of new things before, and they’re really good at it,” he says. “It’s not an easy thing to be away from home, and homesickness is normal. Create open avenues of communication, and don’t avoid the word homesickness.”

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 friends. They’re going to meet lots of other kids and make new friends as well.

Weatherby estimates that 50% of campers come with a friend. Camp Rockmont works to accommodate cabinmate requests, but if multiple boys come from the same class, they’ll split them up to make sure cabin is a good mix of people who know each other and new friends.

Contribute Money to The Camp Store

Most overnight camps have a store where kids can buy snacks with money 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 things than everyone else. Conversely, you don’t want to over-contribute to the store account.

At Valley View Ranch, parents put money on their children’s account at the beginning of the session, so campers don’t carry cash around, and they can buy items
they may have forgotten to pack or snacks and drinks.

At Camp Rockmont, parents contribute around $80 to a camp account. Counselors may use the store to help campers understand the importance of stewardship. The store isn’t open every day, and whatever money is left on the account is reimbursed. The busiest days are opening and closing days, when family members will buy souvenirs, and on Father’s Day when boys shop for the perfect gift for their dad.

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 are including toys in the care packages, choose things that your kids can enjoy with the other campers, like Frisbees and playing cards, instead of toys that only they can enjoy themselves. For our son’s first overnight 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.

Camps often have a protected site parents can check daily to see photos of their children at camp without intruding on the special camp experience and be reassured that their child is OK. Parents may also send emails to their child. At Camp Rockmont, letters and emails are handed out after lunch.

For most kids, receiving mail is exciting, but don’t expect a response, even if you do pack pre-addressed stationery and stamps. Kids are normally so busy having fun at camp they don’t think about sending letters.

At Valley View Ranch, campers receive emails at daily mail call after lunch, and they can respond by sending letters. “It is fun to watch girls get into the idea of sending a letter through the post; a dying art that they bring back to life by decorating their envelopes with glitter in the craft shop or including a pressed 4-leaf clover they found or some clippings from their horse’s mane,” Manning says.

Don’t Hang Around Too Long When You Arrive

When you finally arrive at camp for the drop-off, do yourself – and your kids – a favor and leave once they’re settled. 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 and connecting with their counselors and the other kids.

“One of the biggest benefits of summer camp is learning how to be independent, away from home, stretching your wings and finding out what you can accomplish on your own. So, when you drop your child off meet the counselors and help to make sure they are settled in and comfortable, but do not linger,” Manning says. “The longer you stay fretting over them, the more time they have to get anxious, rather than just jumping right in on the action and starting to make new friends.”

by Tanni Haas

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