By Kristine Emerson
Children are enthralled with the mystery and excitement of overnight summer camp. They are eager to get their first experience of independence, live in the outdoors and be part of the stories they have heard about swimming and nighttime campfires. For a parent, this goes beyond the first pang of anxiety when you watched your child ride away alone on their bike. It extends to a length of time that you cannot control and monitor and the deeper question of whether your child is ready for summer camp.
Kids who have a successful summer camp experience receive an incredible array of benefits. Upon return, they can have an elevated sense of self-confidence, communicate better with adults and teachers and may even have a better understanding in getting along with other kids and social situations. This is often the first opportunity that your child is allowed to have a more independent state and it can be exhilarating.
Parents of all types of children share many of the same concerns, but there is an extra level for those kids who may have challenges as it crosses over into areas such as socialization, attentiveness or listening to instruction, and following preset guidelines. There are also lifestyle considerations that a parent may consider typical but could cause a child problems in a camp setting environment. Being ready for overnight summer camp goes beyond just age and maturity and enters varying aspects of flexibility and acceptance.
Most kids begin badgering their parents about attending summer camp because some of their friends are planning on going. Others have listened to the tales and stories of adventure and feel that they want the same experience. As a parent, you need to balance the intense reaction of overprotection with an open and honest evaluation of whether your child is ready for the challenge.
Summer camps are usually packed with so many activities that children have never tried that they are given a chance to broaden their horizons and acquire new levels of confidence. There are many professionals that give credit to their summer camp for opening the doors and allowing them to find their life’s passion.
Begin with daily habits
Summer camp is all about fitting in and while you might be accustomed to the daily idiosyncrasies of your child, they might be a base for difficulties elsewhere. If your child is a picky eater, does unusual things with their food, has food limitations or is even on medication that alters a standard eating schedule, you will need to consult with camp counselors on the best way to address these issues so that they don’t become a focus.
Being away at camp will also mean that your child has the ability to do things on their own. This can include acceptance of the fact that they will not have access to their video games or television and that they can adapt easily outside of their normal ‘comfort zone’. The upside to this is that kids often discover things about themselves at camp that they didn’t set time aside for at home.
While there is usually an excellent level of guidance at camp, your child should be able to accomplish the usual daily routines of washing, brushing teeth, dressing and going to bed when requested. The child should also be able to help in the setups and cleanup processes at camp. It is a group effort and they should be able to use their home experience to adapt to the camp environment.
Experience with Sleepovers
This is an important area to consider as your child should have had sleepovers at other people’s homes, away from your overseeing influence. Typically they can involve single night sleepovers but a good gauge is how they react to being away for multiple days. Staying at grandparents or relative’s houses is a good start but the best way to tell the reactions are locations that have other kids around.
If your child has sleeping difficulties, experiences night terrors or bedwetting, these are levels of concern as to how they will adapt to being away from home. Some summer camps have methods of working with kids and accommodating these situations, so it’s best to discuss with camp counselors prior to signing up.
Expanding On Social Skills
Most kids that are at the age for summer camp have developed a more sophisticated level for social skills. They understand how to get along with other kids, make concessions, and have positive interaction in play and games. Those kids with challenges may have had outside counseling or instruction in socialization, and this may be the first time that they will be challenged on a larger scale.
Considerations that need to be listed as an alert include whether your child tends to be a ‘loner’ and not participate with others, how well they ‘share’ with others, if they have a tendency to allow themselves to be bullied or bully/pick on others, their sense of fair play, and how they deal with conflict. All of these areas will be tested at summer camp. Children with challenges can often bloom in the environment, bringing them out of their standard behavior. Camp is a place where they find new best friends, giving them a chance to grow, but knowing how your child handles these life situations is key.
Listening to Instruction and Trying New Things
Summer camp is a blend of a new environment, participating with others, contributing, trying new things and above all, listening to instructions. While it is designed around having fun, it is also a place to learn and experience. Independence is a major take-away for camp, but a child that cannot follow guidelines may find themselves on the outside of the ‘fun’ aspect. If there are any ‘authority problems’ this can undermine the entire camp experience. They must also be willing to try new adventures that take them outside of what they are used to.
Children with challenges may have difficulties focusing or remembering a long list of rules. These can be overcome with additional help from the counselors. Most kids forget something and when the guidelines are repeated for everyone, it is a help for all. A consultation with the camp counselors will validate whether reviewing the rules on a daily basis is part of their routine.
Being Homesick is Part of It
Both parents and kids need to know that the feeling of being homesick is a natural experience. Sometimes it happens when they first leave while it takes others a couple of days for the feeling to occur. Packing a favorite item from home will help to reduce the feeling and the camps are experts at recognizing that kids miss their families. Kids that experience challenges can run the gamut, but some have actually felt less homesick, which opens a better learning experience for them.
The Summer Camp: Visit, View and Talk
If the summer camp is close enough, it is advised that you take a personal visit. You can coordinate the visit with or without your child but you will need to discuss any issues with the counselors in private. If you can’t have an in-person visit than request a virtual tour or have a DVD of the camp sent to you. It’s important that you are aware of all of the safety regulations, the number of counselors per child, and the activities. A conversation with the camp leader and counselors will let you express any concerns or outstanding situations at that time and talk about their methods of working with kids.
Be Prepared for Your Child upon Return
Once you make the decision to send your child to an overnight summer camp you will want to set the time aside for them after they return. You need to listen to their experiences, share in their new friends, take wonder in the new ventures that they had. There will be both happy as well as confusing situations and this will be the time for you to help in their growing process. Your guidance will be needed to let them know that not everyone will be their friend but that they did make friends while they were there. It is their first walk on the path of life and your advice will last a lifetime.