You’ve made the plans for summer camp – they get earlier every year, don’t they? – and now it’s almost time for the kids to leave for day or sleep-away camp. It’s easy for some kids, especially the ones who’ve spent time at camp before. They’re looking forward to seeing old friends, practicing sports, doing arts and crafts, exploring interests they’ve put aside during the school year and discovering new talents.
For other kids, especially the ones for whom this whole camp thing is new, the time can be nearly as stressful as it is promising. What can they expect? Will they make friends? Will it be scary? If it’s sleep-away camp, will they be homesick? What if they don’t like it?
Now’s the time, before camp begins, to address these potential issues and put them to rest as much as possible. Here are some tips on how to prepare your child for summer camp.
1. As much as possible, decide together what type of camp experience your child will have. When the child has a say in the decision, he or she will be more apt to be invested in the experience and more inclined to see that his or her desires and decisions are important to you. This builds confidence. Talk about what kind of camp your family is interested in. One with an emphasis on sports? Computer skills? Arts? A day camp or a sleepover camp? Church affiliated?
2. Emphasize the positive. Kids pick up on our moods, our worries, our pleasures and even our prejudices. Talk about the fun things that await them: doing new and different activities that the busy school year doesn’t leave time for, spending loads of time on a favorite sport or activity (lacrosse camp, drama camp, computer camp, music camp, soccer camp) and having some relaxation time.
3. Be realistic. Camp is like real life. Some days are fantastic, filled with laughter and friendship. Some days aren’t. The important thing to remember about time at camp is that it is what we make it. Teach your child all year long to recognize and appreciate the good things, to build joyful memories about them (journals and photos help) and to move as quickly as possible beyond the setbacks. Help your child understand that he or she should learn from the setbacks, but not dwell on them. If you have your own happy memories of summer camp, stories of friends and adventures or tales of how you rose above small disasters, now’s the time to share them with your child. Kids want to be independent but they need a little help. Learning from your experiences can be helpful.
4. Give your child plenty of opportunities to talk about his or her concerns. This requires a special balance of listening empathetically and staying positive. Listen, but don’t indulge outlandish “what if” scenarios that kids are so good at visualizing (“What if a monster rises out of the lake?” or “What if every single one of the other kids hates me?”). Bring the conversations eventually back to the promising “what ifs” of good times, friends, exploration and discovery (“What if you make a great new friend!” or “What if you finally perfect that difficult soccer move?”).
5. Visit ahead of time. Just like when he or she is headed to a new school, it’s always good to let your child have a sneak peek by visiting to get the lay of the land. Same with camp. If it’s feasible, visit ahead of time, with a friend co-camper if possible, to see what the place looks like, to become familiar with it and to make him or her feel less surprised on the first day. If you can’t visit, look at brochures and videos together or talk with other kids who’ve been to the camp.
6. Get a camp buddy. If your child can go to camp with a friend, that’s great. If not, encourage him or her to make new friends early. Friendships (and socializing skills) are lifelong blessings.
7. Keep in touch. If your child is attending a sleep-away camp, promise him or her that you’ll keep in touch through email, text messaging and letters as often as the camp allows. Keep the messages upbeat, supportive and friendly. Emphasize the positive. Express interest in what your child is learning, the experiences he or she is having and the talents that he or she is developing.
8. Pack right. Make sure your child has all the necessities — extra clothes, underwear, socks, swimsuits, suntan lotion, etc. — without overloading him or her. You don’t want your child to end up like that hapless little brother in A Christmas Story, whose mother suited him up with so many winter clothes he couldn’t walk or get up if he fell.
9. Help the camp counselors. Just like the teachers at school, the camp counselors want your child to succeed and have an enjoyable experience. If your child has allergies or special medications, for example, make sure you’ve communicated that to the counselors. They don’t know what you don’t tell them.
10. Get yourself ready. If this is the first time your child will be away from home, realize that you’ll need some period of adjustment, too. Plan some time for yourself. You can relax, enjoy the change in routine (it’ll be back to its school-year intensity before you know it) and catch up on chores, reading or your own on-hold interests.
Summer camp, whether day or sleep-away, can be times of fun, spontaneity, and opportunity to indulge in activities the school year can’t fit in. Take advantage of this break in your family’s homework, study, mealtime and bedtime routines. Encourage your kids to have fun and learn new things – kids love to learn new things – which you will “ooh” and “aah” about warmly and excessively when they come home.