Is your child ready for overnight camp?

Parents who never went to camp may wonder why they would send a child away for two, four or even seven weeks. But with research by the American Camp Association (ACA) and youth development professionals citing camp’s many benefits, parents are learning that summer camp is more than fun—camp is an important part of a child’s education for life.

The right age

Most children will be ready for overnight camp by their double-digit years. “Kids themselves are the best judges of when they are ready. When they show spontaneous interest in camp, that’s a good clue that the time is right,” says Dr. Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist and author of The Summer Camp Handbook.

Dave Devey, director/owner of Falcon Camp, says, “Children develop in different ways and at different stages. A six-year-old could easily be ready and a nine-year-old might not—and that’s okay!”

The decision to attend overnight camp should be camper-driven, says Gordon Josey, owner/director of Camp Twin Creeks. “Children often start talking or asking questions about camp around third grade. Seven or eight-years-old is a good age because younger children tend to be happy and less worried about things. As kids get older, they think more. Virtually none of our younger campers get homesick.”

Joe Greitzer, owner/director of Camp Rim Rock for girls, says, “Children are generally ready for overnight camp by age eight or nine, but parents are often not ready themselves to send children to camp at that age. We encourage parents and children to visit camp before the session starts. When everyone knows where the child will sleep and eat and where the fields are, and meets camp staff, it relieves much of the tension.”
Alone or with friends
Some children ease into overnight camp by going with a friend from home. Josey says that children should be involved in this decision. “Going to camp with a friend is better than not going at all, but part of the camp experience is making new friends,” he says.

Greitzer adds, “It depends on the child. Children who are strong and independent and will make friends with other kids may be fine coming to camp with friends from home. But sometimes when a group of friends comes together, they don’t make an effort to make new friends. Or they may turn against each other.”

Devey says there are good arguments for both sides. “Going by yourself allows you to “invent yourself” as you meet new people. You can present yourself in a different way than you might with all the peer pressure at school. Going with a friend allows you to share some of those camp experiences at camp and at home. If you go with a friend, it’s important that you still make the effort to meet new people and try different things.”

“Well-prepared children with supportive parents will be successful at camp, even going alone,” says Josey. “Parents must speak with children about what camp will be like. Girls generally talk and think more before camp, so they are often better prepared. Boys may experience more homesickness than girls because they talk less about their fears and don’t think about camp until they get there.”

Choosing a session
Because research shows that it can take about three days for children to adjust to camp, many directors recommend a minimum two-week session. Camp Rim Rock offers a one-week mini camp for rising second through fourth graders to help introduce new campers to camp. Falcon Camp offers a one-week “Young Adventurers” program for six and seven-year-olds, but Devey considers this to be a specialty camp program designed to teach very young, first-time campers what “real” camp will be like next year.

“For traditional camp, two weeks is ideal for a first-time younger camper, four or more weeks if they are older,” says Devey. “It takes several days to start making friends, get to know the counselors, figure out activities and schedules, and work through homesickness or other difficulties. By the time a child gets involved in a one-week program, it’s time to go home. Two weeks allows enough time to make better friends, see counselors as role models, learn some skills, and have a rewarding experience.”

Devey says that if a child comes home after a one-week camp, he will say, “I had a great time and I went canoeing.” When he comes home from a two-week or longer program, he’ll say, “I had a great time and I learned how to canoe.”

“Children should help decide how long a session to attend, and know that they can’t go home early. That gives them an out that most children don’t need, and keeps them from focusing on their success. A child’s first letter home might reflect some initial anxiety during the adjustment period, but by the time the parent opens the letter and calls the camp, the child is fine,” Greitzer says.

He cautions that when parents say, “If you’re unhappy, we’ll come get you,” it sends kids a message that they need Mom and Dad to fix their problems. “It’s a wonderful thing for a child to develop self-confidence and responsibility, to learn that they can find their own solutions.

Camp is a precursor to being able to survive college,” says Greitzer.

Separating for a first-time camp experience is usually harder for parents than it is for children, who quickly adapt to the routine and spirit of camp. Josey says, “When parents believe that camp will be terrific for their children, they are more willing to let go so that kids can go to camp and grow, be independent, and have a wonderful time.” 

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Find resources and information about preparing your family for camp:
American Camp Association