Are your kids going to sleepaway camp this summer? As you pack those bags, both parents and kids may be feeling a little nervous—and that’s totally normal. We asked Renee Flax, Director of Camper Placement for the American Camp Association, NY and NJ, for her best advice on preparing kids for camp—from emotional prep to packing tips.
What are the worries you hear most often from parents about sending their kids to sleepaway camp for the first time?
Parents are most worried about their children getting homesick and not adjusting easily to camp life. Parents also worry about their kids making new friends and being able to take care of themselves. Practice before they leave for camp their making their own beds, picking out their own clothes, showering on their own and putting their clothes away. These are all things they will be doing at camp and if it is something they are used to doing, it won’t seem challenging. Even if you are nervous, I think it’s important to not let your kids see your fears because they will pick up on your apprehension.
What are the top tips you give to parents, to prepare their kids emotionally for the first time they go to camp?
Preparing a child emotionally for camp is essential for first time campers. Let them ask you questions and answer them honestly. Whatever their concerns are should be addressed. If you don’t know the answer, call the camp and ask them to help you respond correctly.
Remind your child about what this experience will be. Living in a bunk is a completely new experience for anyone and the first few days can be challenging. Hearing noises, being in a new bed and of course, not having mommy and daddy to call out to if they need something. And remind them that they don’t have to like everyone in their bunk but they do have to be nice! Also, if they need anything or have any concerns, they can always go to their counselors for help. There is always someone there to take care of them.
Honesty is the best approach. Let your child know it is okay to be homesick and miss being home. That happens to everyone! But working through it gives your child great confidence in themselves and a belief that they can be independent. Working through a challenging problem will give your child a degree of confidence in themselves that is immeasurable.
What are the biggest packing “do’s” and “dont’s” that you see often?
DO listen to what the camp has suggested! Remember: they are the experts. This is new to you but not for them. Their camp packing lists are done for a reason. Don’t send 30 t-shirts if they tell you to pack 15. Everything has to go in a cubby and there won’t be room. And their clothing is going through the camp laundry, not on a delicate cycle! Don’t pack very expensive clothing items and expect them to come home looking great! Make sure everything is well-labeled or things will get lost. DON’T send items they specifically ask you to leave at home! There is a reason they asked you not to pack it.
DO send along some personal items. If there is a favorite stuffed animal your child sleeps with or if you think a family picture might make your child feel more secure then definitely include that. But please don’t go overboard with these items! Don’t forget to teach your child about addressing an envelope and putting a stamp on it – it is amazing how many kids have no idea how to do this. You might choose to pre-address labels for them too. If your child has been assigned a big brother or big sister, you can certainly ask them about any extras you might want to bring to camp that are not on the packing list. Or look at the pictures of the camp bunk on social media or on the camp’s website to see what other campers are bringing. It might be a red, white and blue item to wear on July 4th or a personal fan, for instance.
Is separation anxiety probably a little heightened this year after many of us were sticking very close to home?
This past year has been a challenging one for everyone. For some kids, they have spent the majority of the past 15 months at home, not seeing friends very often, not doing sleepovers at a friend’s or their grandparents house or going on vacation. Being at home, with your own immediate family has been the norm even though it is not what life normally looks like. Leaving the “womb” and venturing back out into the real world is hard for everyone. And going to sleepaway camp, whether you are a returning camper or a new camper can seem daunting. Camps are prepared for this challenge because they feel it personally. Camp counselors will get extra staff training about this year and will be able to deal with these issues once your child is at camp but you as the parent you should be talking to your kids now and asking them how they feel. Open the dialogue gently and ask them how they feel. Are they excited? Are they nervous? What can you do to help? Let them lead the conversation with you always being there to offer suggestions and support.
What are sleepaway camps doing to prepare for COVID? And what would you share with parents who are concerned about COVID?
Camps are ready and the good news is, many overnight camps ran last summer amid COVID and did so successfully so there is a blueprint on how to operate this year. Camps are using multiple protocols from the CDC and the state’s DOH to mitigate the risk of COVID. They are also encouraging all staff and campers that are eligible for the vaccine to get it prior to camp. Other protocols include testing everyone prior to arrival, daily health screenings, stable groups of campers and increased hand hygiene. Parents who are nervous should understand that camp is one of the safest environments at this point. Everyone will be tested and screened daily which is more than you can say for many other places your child might visit this summer!
What should you do if you get a call or letter that your kid is homesick? And what should you NOT do?
There is no question that this is every parent’s fear when they send their children to camp! However, it is so common that it almost becomes cliche that you will get this letter at some point. You can certainly call the camp to make sure your child is doing okay. Remember—by the time you get this letter, several days have passed and although your child may have been sad at that moment when they were writing to you, they are probably ok now. Either way, this is all a normal reaction to being away from home. What you should NOT do is tell them before they go to camp that you will take them home if they are homesick. You might as well not even bring them to camp if that is the deal you have made. It is much more important to remind them that being homesick is normal and they will work through it. Let them know you believe in them and that you know they are self-reliant and you have confidence in them. If the camp allows phone calls home don’t be surprised if your child starts crying and getting upset. Hearing your voice will remind them how much they do miss you. This doesn’t mean they don’t love camp. They can miss you and still be having a great time.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Camp is a gift! Truly one of the greatest gifts you can give your child. Hopefully you have selected a camp that you have researched and know the camp directors and their philosophy. Your child is about to enter into a world where they will feel a part of a community that will foster friendship, independence, learning new skills, trying new activities and having fun. In a world where children spend so much time on their various devices, they will be unplugged, have face to face conversations with other people and gain a sense of personal reliance that will last them a lifetime.