Prepping the first time camper

There are times when parents make decisions based on their own well-being. There are times when parents consider what’s best for their child. And then there are those happy times when the two intertwine, and it’s a win-win for both parents and kids. That’s the situation I’ve found myself in now that I have persuaded my youngest child, Elias, to sign up for a week of summer camp.

I’m a little surprised it didn’t happen sooner. My two older children both have had positive experiences at different overnight camps. My 16-year-old daughter, Louisa, went to camp for the first time several years ago with her Girl Scout troop, and last summer, she spent a month at a Concordia Language Villages camp. My 14-year-old son, Sebastian, has been to Boy Scout camp multiple times and is interested in becoming a camp counselor. But 12-year-old Elias—who is more cautious about trying new activities—has never asked to attend an overnight camp by himself, even though he has enjoyed attending various day camps, as well as the three-day Cub Scout camp he and I once experienced together. So I decided it was time for me to bring up the subject—and to enlist the persuasive abilities of his older sister.

I admit I have selfish reasons for wanting him to go to camp for a week. With all three kids gone at the same time, I could tackle some long-delayed projects without interruptions. I could make a dent in my stack of unread books. I could walk around the house without picking up stray wrappers and dirty socks. Ah, the possibilities! But mostly I want him to go because I know that his brain and body will stretch and grow in a stimulating environment that’s different from home and from school. (Also, if he’s home all week without siblings, he’s more likely to turn to screens for entertainment. At camp, the only screens he’ll see are the ones keeping the mosquitos at bay.)

Connie Rodosovich, general manager of camping services of the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities, says camp can be transformational for youth, whether they attend for three days or three weeks. 

“Kids who attend camp do better in school, their social skills improve, and their self-esteem increases,” she says. “We really believe in the powerful, positive impact of a camp experience.”

Rodosovich says parents of first-time overnight campers should consider what they most want their child to gain, and let that guide them in selecting a camp. Is it important for your child to learn to ride a horse? If so, you might choose a camp known for its quality equestrian program. Do you want your child to have a well-rounded experience? Examine the range of activities that are offered, and the staff-to-camper ratio. Are you and your child comfortable being separated by a six-hour drive, or would a camp closer to home reduce anxiety? 

Fortunately, Minnesota is blessed with an abundance of camp options; the YMCA alone offers a variety of overnight camps for kids ages seven to 17, plus wilderness camps for youth ages 12 to 18, day camps for kids ages four to 14, and family camps for all ages.

Rodosovich says one of the best ways to prepare potential campers is to have them visit the camp website and check out the photo galleries, to get a sense for what a typical day might include. Attending a camp open house or information night can be a good opportunity to meet camp staff and ask questions. Also, most camps, like all those operated by the YMCA, are open to tours. Seeing where they’ll be eating and sleeping can often put kids more at ease.

If a child still feels hesitant, the option of attending overnight camp with a friend or another family member can help boost confidence. That’s the strategy I employed in proposing camp to my son Elias. I suggested he attend the language camp where his older sister will be returning this summer because I knew that the security of knowing someone at camp would make the idea more appealing. 

The fact that Louisa could enthusiastically describe details about the food, testify to the friendliness of the counselors, and teach him some of the songs has me convinced that although he won’t unpack his suitcase for four more months, Elias already is on his way to becoming a happy camper.


Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to jriggs@mnparent.com.