6 Things All Parents Need to Know About Summer Camp

Once school lets out for the summer, kids need some scheduled activities to keep them occupied and maintain their thinking skills. Organized sports and specialty classes are a great place to start, but they’re not that different from what your kid does on a daily basis during the school year. To give your son or daughter a taste of something new, think summer camp.

Old fashioned though it may seem, camp remains as relevant an experience as ever. We recently chatted with Chris Thurber, Ph.D., psychologist and instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, and co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook, to learn the ins and outs of why the camp experience is so important and how you can get your child ready. His insight can help you with everything from picking a great program to minimizing the chances of homesickness.

1. It’s a valuable experience

group of children outside looking at a bug they caught in a jar

Kids collecting bugs in a jar | Source: iStock

Not to undermine the importance of the classroom, but having your son or daughter sit in the same setting all summer probably isn’t the best idea. With Thurber’s help, the American Camp Association (ACA) has conducted an extensive amount of research on how summer camp impacts children. “What’s clear is a week or more at a camp that is well-matched to a child’s interests, abilities, and developmental level can accelerate the growth of their self esteem, can accelerate their social skills, and can accelerate their sense of adventure and willingness to try new things,” Thurber said.

According to the research, which involved more than 5,000 families, 70% of parents said camp helped improve their child’s self-confidence and 74% of kids reported the experience encouraged them to try things they first found scary. While these stats hold true for any type of camp, those that involve staying overnight are particularly beneficial.

No one’s going to deny the importance of good parenting in a child’s development, but how he or she acts when you’re not around also matters. “Having some experience with surrogate caregivers is very powerful,” Thurber said. “And overnight camps have four factors you don’t get in combination in any other setting: community living, a beautiful, natural setting, a recreational premise, and it’s expressly away from home.” Thurber went on to explain that these differences make ‘away camp’ a great compliment to the usual academic environment that encourages children to try new things and take healthy risks.

2. Timing matters

father and daughter sit on a dock overlooking a lake

Daughter pointing out something to her father as they sit on a dock | Source: iStock

In terms of deciding when you should start considering sending your son or daughter to camp, every child is a little bit different. That being said, Thurber recommended some general guidelines. “The youngest for day camp might be about 5 years old, kind of the same time you would start kindergarten,” he suggested. “And the youngest for overnight camp of a week or more is probably around 8.”

If you’re interested in giving it a shot, Thurber suggested visiting a few camps with your child the summer before. You can gauge their reaction, which will give you a pretty good indication of whether they feel ready. You can encourage them and try to get them excited, but you never want your kid to feel forced. Thurber said, “If they haven’t shown some sort of intrinsic interest or they’re fearful for whatever reason, then I would say, regardless of the child’s chronological age, the time may not be right.”

3. Finding the right camp takes some research

Couple Looking at Laptop, travel

Couple reading laptop together | Source: iStock

Word of mouth is probably the most common way parents become familiar with programs, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you consider. Because everyone has different skills and interests, one kid’s ideal camp might be a disaster for someone else. Thurber explained, “It’s not, ‘What’s the best camp in the country?’ It’s, “How can I find the camp that’s best matched for my kid?'”

Though niche camps have become incredibly popular, you shouldn’t rule out opting for something more conventional. “If you had to pick one, I’d go traditional,” Thurber said. “If you can do both and the family can afford it, then great.”

After you do a quick bit of research on available camps in your area, you’ll find there are a staggering number of choices. To find the highest quality options, Thurber recommended looking into the tenure of the camp director, how thoroughly the staff are trained, and whether it’s accredited with the ACA.

The camp directors are great resources as well. You can ask them about the return rate, which gives a pretty clear idea of how well kids like the program. Thurber also said you can utilize a director to connect with campers in your area. “That’s really nice because the director is going to give you the names of satisfied customers, but you can also talk parent to parent, kid to kid and get it straight from the participant’s point of view,” Thurber explained.

After that, you really just need to consider what your child likes to do. Even traditional camps vary in terms of what they offer, so go with something that aligns with his or her favorite types of activities.

4. Preparing for emotional struggles is crucial

happy boy unloading luggage for camp

Boy unloading luggage for camp | Source: iStock

Homesickness is a very real phenomenon, so deal with it ahead of time. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation with your son or daughter about their uneasiness about spending some time away because it acknowledges that the feeling is normal. Whatever your exact response is, Thurber said it should be “something that expresses positivity, optimism, and confidence in the child’s ability to make it through the whole session.”

You also want to be careful about making any promises to come pick up your child should they get really homesick. “The subtext of that message is ‘I have so little faith in your ability to cope with this normal feeling that I think the only solution would be for me to come and rescue you,'” Thurber explained. Doing so also means your child will be less likely to make an effort to socialize and get involved in activities.

And the end result is bad whether you actually make good on your promise. If you ultimately decide not to come get your son or daughter after saying you will, they’re trust will be broken. And if you do come to get them? “In my opinion, you’re really robbing them of this important developmental experience,” Thurber said.

And don’t forget to acknowledge your own reservations. Thurber said many parents feel uneasy about their child leaving home for the first time. “They need to share that with another adult,” Thurber said. “That could be the other parent or partner. It could be a coworker, it could be a friend, or it could be a neighbor. What you want to avoid at all costs is expressing anxiety or reservations to your child.” Your worries will become your child’s worries, and you don’t want to set them up for a bad experience.

5. The best coping strategies differ for each child

young boy writing a letter or doing his homework

Young boy writing a letter | Source: iStock

Prior to any camp experience, Thurber recommended giving your child some practice time away. For little ones headed to day camp, a few afternoons at a friends house will work. For older kids headed to a sleep-away camp, practice snoozing elsewhere is the way to go. “Have them do an overnight at a friend’s house or a few nights at their grandparents’ house and see how they do,” he suggested.

Though Thurber and his co-author expressly developed The Summer Camp Handbook as a way to minimize the chances of homesickness, there’s no way to guarantee avoiding it. The best way to help your kid overcome homesickness is to arm them with ideas for coping strategies. Some of Thurber’s top choices are speaking with a counselor, focusing on appreciating the things camp offers that home doesn’t, and writing letters. “For most kids, writing a letter is the way they maintain a connection with home,” he said.

More importantly, keep in mind not every strategy works for every kid. If you give your child some ideas, counselors will likely be able to help them find one that works.

6. Packing should be a group effort

happy family of three packign while dad read something on a computer

Happy family of three packing together | Source: iStock

After all the research and mental preparation, getting ready for the big day can still be a little bit overwhelming. Fortunately, most camps provide a comprehensive packing list. “That list was made by people who’ve worked with kids for many summers, so they know what to bring and what not to bring,” Thurber said. They also usually suggest what type of container or luggage you should use.

Though most of us see packing as a day-before activity, it’s better to think a little bit ahead for camp. “Buy the recommended container, keep it in the basement or in your kid’s room, and add to it over the course of several weeks,” Thurber suggested. This makes the process more manageable and also reduces your chances of forgetting something.

No matter how exactly you decide to tackle packing, your son or daughter should be involved in as much of it as possible. According to Thurber, doing it together also helps “kids feel like they have some ownership over the experience.”

On a practical note, label everything you pack. You can either use a waterproof marker or go all out by purchasing a labeler. “If you want to get it back, it has to have your name on it,” Thurber said. Who knows? Maybe that silly pair of labeled underwear will serve as a reminder of the fantastic time your kid had during their first time at camp.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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