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Sleepaway Camp — is your child ready?
When it comes to deciding whether or not a child is ready for a sleepaway camp this summer, many parents rely on the successful completion of some major life events, including getting through most nights without wetting the bed, or happily managing an overnight sleepover at a friend’s house.
While those are excellent indicators, there are some additional cues that a savvy parent may want to consider. We talked with parents whose kids are camp veterans, longtime counselors, and child mental health professionals to dig a little deeper into helping you decide when your little one is ready for a few days — or even a whole summer — away at camp.
“What happens after the parent drives away and the kids get on the bus to camp with their counselors is really different than what you might expect,” says longtime Urban 4-H Camp at Bay Lake counselor Nathalie Young. The southwest Minneapolis resident, now a freshman at the Chicago College of Performing Arts, says that she is very familiar with the phenomenon of the child who clamps onto the parent’s leg, sobbing “don’t make me go!” but who perks up as soon as a parent’s brakelights disappear in the driveway.
Drama queens and brave fronts
“We try to get kids distracted, involved and making friends right away,” says Young. “We’ll start with name games, help them meet new people, and talk about how much fun we’ll have when we arrive at camp.” While the drama-queen-turned-happy-camper is certainly a category of camper with whom most counselors are familiar, Young also notes that this type has its less well-known counterpart. “I’ve also seen kids who put on a brave and cheery face, maybe because they really wanted to go to camp right up until that moment, or because they don’t want to worry a parent. They’ll be all-smiles with mom or dad, but tears start as soon parents leave.” Never fear, says Young, “No matter what a kid is going through, we find ways to get them focused on fun stuff as soon as possible.”
Key indicator: go with the flow
Young does agree that the dry-bed and successful-sleepover indicators are good ones for determining if you’ve got a camp-ready child this year, but she also points to another factor. “Sleeping over at a friend’s house does show that a child can be away from home overnight, but, other than that, camp isn’t really much like a sleepover.” She says that a more important factor might be to consider whether or not your child can readily and easily participate in large-group activities, and be flexible enough to adapt their desires to those of the group.
“We have strict rules about the camper-counselor ratio, so it’s not possible for a child to stay alone in the arts and crafts area, for example, finishing a project, if it’s time for the group to go swimming. If you have a child who can do community activities and go with the flow, then they’re more likely to be ready for a positive camp experience,” she says.
Mental health professional’s perspective
Young’s advice is reinforced by Beth Dahline, a social worker and school-based mental health program supervisor at Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis. “Being able to participate in group activities is important,” she says, and builds on that milestone with several other practical questions that parents could consider. “Can they make decisions for themselves, and understand themselves enough to enroll in activities that are good fits for them? Can they know when they need to use the restroom and speak up about it? Are they able to be responsible with their belongings? Keeping track of both shoes is going to be necessary,” she says with a laugh. On a more serious note, she suggests, “Parents should consider whether their child will know when they are hurt or when they need to ‘shake it off.’ They also should know to use their voice when it’s critically needed, and to ask adults for help.”
She notes that most parents begin exploring sleepaway camps when children are around ages eight through ten, but she urges that developmental factors are much more important considerations than age. She also cautions parents to make sure that kids have an accurate understanding of what happens at camp. “They might have an idealized view of nature, and not realize that bugs, heat and rain are also part of the whole picture,” she says.
Talk to the camp director
Dahline urges parents to visit camps in advance, if possible, or at least to have a conversation with the camp director. “You know your child better than anyone — if they’re a picky eater, can’t fall asleep easily, or wake up with the first ray of sun. You should directly ask the camp director, ‘How do you handle this situation?’ and see if you’re satisfied with their response.” Understanding the camp’s policies toward bullying, for example, is something that parents will want to explore in advance, especially if their child might be a target.
The buddy system — pros and cons
Some parents seek to ease their child’s experience at sleepaway camp by having them attend with a friend. While that idea can be successful in alleviating pre-camp anxiety, it can also be prone to pitfalls, Dahline says. “It really depends on the personality and flexibility of the child. If you have a very shy kid who wants to go to sleepaway camp with a friend, you should spend some time wondering out loud with them how they might react if the friend makes a new friend at camp, or goes to sit with someone else. It’s a good idea to have that conversation with both kids, and with the friend’s family, too.”
Sometimes, Dahline says, hesitant sleepaway campers may have more success attending camp with a sibling. “Especially if they go to school together, the child is already familiar with the idea of the sibling doing their own thing during class time, but being available if support is needed.”
What parents say
Nicole Celichowski, a St. Paul mother of three, says that sleeping styles might be one of the biggest factors to consider. “Will they get themselves to bed at a civilized time, or will they be a train wreck the next day? Still, that might be a good learning experience all around, if you think the kid can handle it,” she says.
Julie Brown Price, of Eden Prairie, found that easing into the sleepaway experience worked best when her daughter Hannah was younger. “One camp held a one-night sleepover in the middle of the day camp session. The camp staff got the kids excited about this one special night, so it was highly anticipated,” she recalls.
St. Paul parent Margaret Jones believes that even a bit of homesickness can be a good life lesson, too. “Both our boys went away to camp for two and four-week sessions when they were young. They were certainly lonesome at times, but they were also very proud of themselves for getting through it.”
Urban 4-H Camp at Bay Lake (open to non 4-H members)
July 21–25 and August 4–8
Washburn Center for Children
Offices in Minneapolis, Minnetonka and Brooklyn Park