Heading off to an overnight program is a time-honored tradition. But how do you know if your child is ready? In this Verywell Family article, Mindpath Health’s Rashmi Parmar, MD, offers tips on finding the perfect summer camp for kids of all ages.
The long, warm summer months can mean sending your kids off to camp, a pivotal experience for many. You might consider sending your kids to camp because it was a positive experience for you: You remember the friends you made, the independence you felt, or the activities you enjoyed. You might want to send your kid to camp to help them branch out or to help them discover new skills. But it might be hard to discern if your kid is ready for camp, especially when it comes to their age and development.
Camps have evolved since the first one was founded all the way back in 1861.1 If you are sending your child to camp for the first time, there are a few things you need to know, including the benefits of camp, what age your child should be to go to camp, and what kinds of camps are available today.
Benefits of summer camp
There are numerous benefits of sending your child to summer camp, including that camp is full of experiences that boost your child’s self-confidence, it can make your child appreciate nature and outdoor activities, and promote physical health and wellbeing, says Rashmi Parmar, MD, a Newark, Calif.-based psychiatrist with Mindpath Health. “It also teaches them life-sustaining skills,” she says.
Dr. Parmar says camp can also improve fine and gross motor skills and cognitive skills. It can build stamina through activities and expose your child to a variety of social and team-building activities, as well as develop an interest in new skills and hobbies.
Age 5 to 9
Children aged 5 to 9 can benefit from a lot of skills at camp, says Dr. Parmar. “They are transitioning from a preoperational stage of cognitive development at this age,” she says, noting that they’re still developing language and communication skills and they’re largely guided by their own intuition. “The exposure to varied environments challenges their thinking abilities and builds on their coping skills,” she explains. It also helps expose them to independence.
It’s not all about development, though: “Summer camps usually encompass fun-filled and exciting activities as opposed to the regular school setting,” she says. It’s where kids can have fun and learn skills in a low-pressure but structured environment. “Many will also learn the important art of approaching and connecting with new people as well as building friendships. They are also learning the importance of following rules, listening to adults, and being a part of a team,” Dr. Parmar says.
Age 10 to 13
Preteen years—that is, about 10 to 13—brings about a lot of changes. “Children this age are in the flux of a lot of changes in their body, mind, emotions, social abilities, and overall personality development,” says Dr. Parmar.
At this age, she says that children build on critical thinking and logical reasoning skills. They also learn about different perspectives and they are able to compare them to their own. “Summer camp helps them hone these skills further by presenting them with challenges and opportunities outside their regular home and school environment.”
For this particularly tricky age group, camp can be a place to get a “clean slate” when it comes to friendships, says Dr. Parmar. “Everyone is new and has an equal opportunity to explore and find peers that share their interests,” she says. “They get to explore new hobbies based on what the camp offers, and they learn the importance of following rules and staying within the limits set by the camp.”
Age 14 to 18
It’s all about practical life and social skills during the teen years, says Dr. Parmar. “They still have to be accountable for following rules and keeping up with their schedule while at camp, which further adds to their emotional maturity and independence,” she says.
Social skills are a huge focus during teen years, and camp brings together peers from different backgrounds. “Everyone starts at the same basic level of going in without having any knowledge about who else will be attending, therefore there is no pre-existing bias or drama involved,” says Dr. Parmar. “Each child gets a chance to approach new people without having to deal with things like breaking into a pre-existing popular group like the ones encountered in high school these days.”
Another benefit of camp for teens is the mentorship roles that can often appear during later teen years. “It develops their leadership and teamwork abilities,” says Dr. Parmar. “Teens who attend camp are also more used to and are more exposed to hands-on and physical activities, exercise, and have less access to electronics while at camp which is always desirable.”
The best age for summer camp
Dr. Parmar says that the best age is dependent first and foremost on your child’s individual abilities and maturity level, as well as a parent’s own readiness. “For most families sending a child to camp is a big decision and should be taken with utmost consideration and care,” she says. There are several types of camps, which, depending on your child’s age and family’s readiness, might be most appropriate.
Day camp, where you drop your kids off for a set time period during the day, is an ideal option, starting around age 5 or 6, says Dr. Parmar. “Consider sending a 5 or 6-year-old child to a day camp if they are able to attend similar programs such as preschool or daycare without any major issues,” she says.
If your child is able to handle themselves well in outside settings, they might be ready for sleepaway camp, says Dr. Parmar. “Kids at age 6 to 9 years old tend to be relatively independent in taking care of their own selves, and can navigate outside situations with ease and minimal supervision,” she says. Other factors to consider include if older siblings or friends are attending camp and if your child seems excited by the prospect.
Curtis McFall, owner and director of Project Foxwood, a collection of three camps in Northern Michigan, says that in his experience, older campers tend to stay for longer sessions at his residential camp, but that it isn’t a hard and fast rule. His camps—which he calls “experiential learning programs”—encompass ages 7 to 17, but it’s more about maturity and independence than age. “Camp should be flexible enough to meet the needs of campers for their given developmental stage,” he says.
Preparing yourself as a parent
Dr. Parmar stresses that the decision to send your child to camp is as much about the parents’ readiness as it is about a child’s: You have to be ready to separate. “Most parental worries or concerns about their child’s care while at camp can be easily addressed and planned with the camp staff or counselors ahead of time,” she advises. McFall agrees: “We typically find that campers are virtually always ready for camp. It’s the parents who are not ready to let go.”
Chances are, whether a day camp or a sleep-away camp, you’ll be receiving a list of items your camper will need to bring.2 That might include items such as sunscreen, bathing suits, and bug spray, as well as toiletries or sheets and bedroom items if it’s an overnight camp. Using lists can keep parents focused on the task at hand. Make sure that you also have up-to-date vaccinations as one action item on your list.
Sid Khurana, MD, a psychiatrist at Las Vegas-based Nevada Mental Health and father of two, says, “Planning and structure are key, and so is picking your battles.” If you have a day camper, Dr. Khurana suggests working out the logistics for the next day the night before, such as outfits and food. “It can alleviate the stress and having structure can decrease early morning negotiations,” he says.
He also suggests getting your children involved if they want to have a say. “In an age- and developmentally-appropriate fashion, assigning the little ones with tasks and responsibilities—and giving them rewards and praise for successfully completing those tasks and responsibilities—can be very effective for their development,” he says.
Renee Solomon, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and mom who serves as the CEO of Forward Recovery offers up this tip: “It is very helpful to send them with an object that reminds them of their parents like a picture or a stuffed animal or even a small scarf or a piece of clothing,” she says. Be sure to incorporate that into your packing list.
Deal with your emotions
Parents can feel excited, scared, nervous, and anxious for their children who are going off to camp for the first time, which can lead to projection or negative effects on their child. Dr. Kurana says that the first step in checking your emotions is recognizing what that emotion is—perhaps separation anxiety—and that it’s very common.
“Separation anxiety helps get us prepared,” Dr. Kurana says. “Reassure yourself that you are doing the right thing by investing in your child’s social and emotional development, and allowing them an opportunity to play, learn, and have fun.”
Camps often help parents with their mixed emotions by offering daily or weekly photos, specifying what the communication will be before camp begins so parents can know what to expect, and how to manage those expectations so that their child can have the best camp experience possible.
Solomon says that a week or two away from camp would be an opportune time for parents to plan something special, just for themselves. “It’s a great time to plan a trip of your own, or plan a special time with your significant other or friends. Parents should view camp as an opportunity for their child to be independent in the world,” he says. “But as parents, we can also miss our children greatly. Find something special that you would not be able to do if your child was still at home and remember that they will soon return.”
How to choose a summer camp
For kids, camp is about independence and fun, but there’s a little more work involved when it comes to the camp you select as a parent. Dr. Parmar suggests outlining what kinds of skills and experiences you desire your children to have. Are you looking for them to build social skills? Connect with like-minded kids? Experience academic growth?
“Make sure you include your child in this discussion,” she says. If you want a sense of comfort and familiarity for your child, ask other parents in your child’s social circles what they are up to for the summer. Here’s how to go about selecting a summer camp that feels right for the whole family.
Do your research
The first thing you’ll want to cross off your list is doing research on potential camps to send your child to. Maybe you know you want to send your child to the same camp you went to, or maybe you’re starting from scratch. Either way, Dr. Parmar advises doing an evaluation of the camp and what they are offering. That includes a ratio of instructors to kids, background checks, safety protocols, and more.
McFall suggests starting with your family’s values system and family philosophy. “It’s important to understand the camp’s overarching philosophy and approach to ensure this fits well with the family’s goals for the program,” he says. For example, ask about any religious affiliations, group affiliations, or sponsors. He says one great way to do your due diligence is to understand a camp’s retention rate. “It says a lot regarding the robustness of a camp’s program,” says McFall.
McFall also suggests looking at the camp’s entire community. While the cabins at his camps are age-based, the activities, meals, and more are not divided. “We strive to instill the value of building a community within a diverse group of campers,” he says, which might be important when looking at the holistic experience for your child.
Consider Your Budget
Camps run the gamut as far as cost. Decide on a budget ahead of time and look for camps that fall within the range you feel most comfortable with. Time is also a cost; evaluate if you are willing to send your child somewhere far away, or if you want to keep them a little closer. Many camps offer many options for length of stay; some programs can be as short as three days or up to three weeks long.
Consider Your Child’s Interests
One of the great things about being a 21st-century kid is that there are an enormous number of camps, geared toward just about any interest. There are traditional day camps and overnight camps that focus on more of an outdoorsy, traditional adventure experience.
But there are also camps that are more focused on STEAM learning, or camps that are tied to non-profits like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. There are niche camps pertaining to just about any hobby or interest, from theatre to dance to LEGOs and more. There are also camps that specifically cater to children with disabilities or who need extra assistance, as well.
When not to send your child to camp
Only you will know as their parent whether or not your child is ready, but there are a few things you can look out for, according to Dr. Parmar.
Signs your child might not be ready include if they have trouble sleeping without a parent nearby or awaken frequently through the night; if they are unable to go to sleepovers; or if they have significant medical conditions that require extra attention and assistance, as the staff might not be able to manage it. If your child is showing a clear unwillingness to go and has expressed it, it might not be a good idea to push them, Dr. Parmar advises.
Anxiety about going away is normal, says Dr. Parmar, but it doesn’t always indicate that they shouldn’t attend. “Anxiety is not necessarily a sure sign that they should not be persuaded to go; however, it is important that they are not unduly forced to take this step,” she says.
Should you find your child there and having a hard time, McFall says that camps should have systems in place to help with campers who are having a hard time being away from home.
Talking to your kids about camp
The most important step of signing your kid up for camp is talking to them about it first. “Introduce them to the concept well in advance,” says Dr. Parmar. Share your positive experiences of camp with them. Know that most kids will have mixed emotions—excitement and anxiety—but that this is common.
Dr. Parmar also suggests involving them in the decision-making process to let them know they have a say and that you are hearing them. This will help with open dialogue, where they can bring up concerns and questions and you can validate them.
Dr. Parmar particularly notes that parents should avoid pushing their own agendas onto their children; just because it was a wonderful experience for you doesn’t mean that it will necessarily be for your kid. Likewise, if you are anxious, try to avoid channeling your own anxiety to your child. “Don’t provide false reassurances or set up unrealistic expectations,” she says.
McFall adds, “If these messages come from a place of love and support virtually any camper can be successful at camp. Being away from home and their normal support system can cause a bit of anxiety, but overcoming this can be a huge confidence builder for any camper regardless of their age.”
Let your child know that you will be checking on them in accordance with camp guidelines. “Establish a clear mode of communication to be expected once they are away at camp,” Dr. Parmar says.
Read the full Verywell Family article with sources.
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