Caught in the excitement of sending a child off to a day or overnight camp, perhaps for the first time, even the most prepared parents can overlook the most important preparation of all. Getting a child ready for camp means more than buying extra bathing suits. How you communicate with your child before camp can make all the difference, says Bob Ditter, a clinical social worker and author who specializes in children and summer camp, and is a consultant to the American Camp Association (ACA) and other national youth development organizations.
Rather than sit a child down for “the camp talk,” Ditter recommends a series of short chats worked into general conversations around the dinner table or in the car, focused around themes like making friends, trying new activities, cooperating on bunk chores, asking for help when you have a problem, and staying positive.
Dave Devey, owner/director of Falcon Camp, an overnight camp 80 miles west of Pittsburgh, says that talking with your child about camp can also uncover fears or concerns that should be communicated to camp staff before the season starts.
“If a child is nervous about camp, has activity restrictions or is worried about a family situation, we need to know so we can be prepared to help that child,” says Devey. “We also want to know about a child’s expectations. Parents have to know that camps don’t judge children or families, and that everything is confidential, but the more honest and accurate information they can provide about a child’s hopes and fears, the more we as camp staff can help a child get along.”
Homesick isn’t sick
It’s natural for even the most excited new campers, and even experienced campers, to fear or feel some homesickness, according to a January 2007 clinical report in the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) journal, Pediatrics. The study, by child and camp experts Dr. Christopher Thurber, a Board-certified clinical psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and author of The Summer Camp Handbook; Dr. Edward A. Walton, assistant professor of emergency medicine and pediatrics at the University of Michigan; and the AAP Council on School Health, is the first evidence-based report to conclude that homesickness is a normal and preventable part of any separation. Their research also shows that coaching parents and teaching children effective coping skills can lower the intensity of first-year campers’ homesickness by about 50 percent.
Since meeting at summer camp more than 25 years ago, Thurber and Walton have each made camp a focus of their respective careers. “Research shows that 90 percent of children attending summer camp feel some levels of homesickness and that 20 percent face a serious level of distress that — if untreated — worsens over time and interferes with their ability to benefit from a camp experience,” says Thurber.
“One of the basic tips for parents is to talk to kids ahead of any separation,” says Walton. “What parents say beforehand matters, and is very important for the intensity of homesickness.”
Know what to expect
Managing a child’s expectations can alleviate problems, create excitement, and start a good pre-camp conversation. “Try to visit the camp with your children before the first day so they know what to expect,” says Lori Smith, Assistant Director of Royal Oak School and Day Camp in Allison Park, “and ask them to tell you their expectations of what camp will be like.”
Smith also advises parents to avoid giving children exact pick-up times, so children won’t worry if a parent is running late, and encourages parents to ask questions about new friends and new activities at the end of the camp day.
Devey suggests that parents visit the ACA website at www.campparents.org to read more tips for camp preparedness. Parents can also find some of Thurber’s strategies for a successful summer at his website, www.campspirit.com. Thurber suggests:
• Involve children in the camp decision so that children have a sense of control.
• Try to introduce children to other campers or counselors before camp starts.
• A familiar face can make all the difference in the adjustment to a new environment.
• Tell children that homesickness is natural, and warn children against keeping feelings of homesickness to themselves or doing something “bad” in order to get sent home.
• If your child takes medicine for attention, behavior or psychological conditions, don’t use camp as an excuse to take a “drug holiday.” Make sure that they, and the camp’s nurse or counselors, know their medication schedule and the importance of sticking to it.
• Above all, know whether your child is really ready for camp.
“Parents have to be positive about the camp experience and share that enthusiasm with their children,” says Devey. “Never tell a child how much you’ll miss them while they’re at camp, as that only creates anxiety for campers and parents. The best thing a parent can say to a child setting off for camp? Have a great time!’”
Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section.