Sending a child to camp for the first time is a leap of faith.
One particularly amazing fact is that approximately 95% of first time campers go to camp and return home having had a great camp experience, not just a good experience. At the same time many parents who went to camp in their childhood may forget that it took them a few years to fully get comfortable in an overnight camp setting.
Some of my greatest camp directing stories involve campers that were homesick for many years and in the end, it was because of camp that they became so well adjusted, resilient and happy adults. Each child is different and while most children attend camp for the first time between the ages of six to eight, some also start later. Here are some tips to ensure a positive first camp experience for your child:
1) Don’t live vicariously through your child. Just because you liked certain aspects of camp or you adapted quickly, doesn’t mean your child will. At the same time if you were homesick, for example, don’t make the potential for homesickness seem bigger than it is. In other words, your child will pick up cues from your attitude towards camp; if you’re nervous, they will be. But if you send a clear message that you feel they are ready for camp and have faith in them they will view it with a positive attitude. Let them enjoy camp in their own way and blaze their own trail.
2) Create a relationship with your Camp Director. Have them come to your home so they can get to know your child and understand what you want as a parent in terms of youth development. You will be amazed at how a one-hour meeting with the owner or director of a camp can kick off a long-term relationship with your family. Be sure to discuss your goals for your child and be open about your child’s character and personality (if necessary separately from the child) so that the camp can prepare the staff in the very best way possible.
3) The Camp Director can explain the communication policy to your child. That discussion should include how the camp uses mail, fax or e-mail as well as personal telephone communication between the camp staff and the parent. The parent and child should feel reassured if they know that the parent will be contacted after the first few days of camp and also if there are any major issues whether medical or emotional. Parents should always feel comfortable to call the camp at any time.
4) Don’t hide anything from the camp, they will respect full knowledge and disclosure. In fact you would be surprised what Camp Directors see each year; nothing will surprise, upset or scare them.
5) If your child does not know anyone else going to camp, the Camp Director will often offer a play date before camp. Often new kids who are older are welcomed by returning campers through emails or phone calls. These same campers understand that as soon as your child gets off the bus that they have a role to play in greeting your child with a special welcome through simple gestures, whether it is helping to carry a duffel bag or helping a fellow camper unpack.
6) Remember the saying ‘homesick and happy.’ If your child is young or has potential to be homesick, let him/her know that you can be homesick and have a great time at camp. They are not mutually exclusive. Most kids think they have to hide their true feelings when in fact the message to give your child is simple:
“Some kids miss home and that may be you or it may be the child sleeping beside you. Whoever it is, just know that it’s normal for some kids to be homesick and that funny feeling gets better each day. Remember you don’t really get sick from homesickness and the word should be replaced with “happy but missing home”. Just make sure that feeling is not held inside and that your friends and counsellors know because when it is held inside it can be more difficult to deal with. Camp is such a friendly place and if everyone in the cabin talks about their feelings it will actually make everyone feel better.”
7) Do not make a promise that if they dislike camp they can come home after a certain period of time. The only time I have seen a child not succeed at camp, was when there was a specific learning challenge/personal issue or if the parent said they could come home. Instead you can say “We have complete faith in you that this camp is the right one for you and that the staff will take such good care of you”. If still your child is anxious about the worst case scenario you can also say “camp is not a jail. The directors inform us of how you are doing and never hide anything. If you are not improving and you are giving it you’re all, then the camp said they will discuss that with us.” Let them know if they are reluctant but hesitant that after the first experience you will re-evaluate for next summer. Often the most apprehensive camper wants to stay the whole time the next summer.
8) Do not repeat over and over again how much you will miss your child whether it is before camp or through letters. Just say “you love them, and are so proud of them”. When you send them off, leave them with the message that you can’t wait to hear all about who they met, who their counsellors were and all about their cabin mates and the activities they are doing.
9) Encourage your child to come to camp with their security blanket, favourite animal and so on! It doesn’t matter how old they are.
10) Encourage your child to try a sleepover at a grandparent, friend or relatives house before camp.
11) Remind them that if they have a sibling or cousin going to camp that they will be there to support them and at some camps they even allow you to do an activity together with your sibling. Older children often play the parent role with the younger child even when you least expect it! This is a special and unique part of camp.
12) Let your child get involved in the camp ‘choosing’ process whether it is looking at the camp brochure, DVD or the web site. Have them involved in asking questions of the Camp Director whether in person at the home visit or in an email so an early relationship is formed between the camp and the child.
13) Involve your child in the camp packing so they get to pick out some of the camp clothing and actually see where it goes in the duffel bug. Help him/her plan what they need with the camp checklist and let them pack out. This gives them a needed sense of control.
14) Pack writing material for them that they like and make it easy to send letters. Send letters a week before they go and send self–addressed stamped envelopes.
15) Discuss with your child and the Camp Director the little things that often can become issues for a first time camper that can be easily resolved:
· The homesickness and happy discussion
· Where are the washrooms? Are they in the cabin or in a common area?
· Maybe a child is scared of the dark and it’s as simple as providing a night-light.
· Maybe the child is the last to fall asleep and the staff needs to know to stay longer with that child until they fall asleep.
· Many children are anxious and camps are often experts in dealing with anxious children.
16) Do not expect every letter to be wonderful. Campers tend to write when they are upset. Think about how upset your child can be at home and after five minutes be perfectly happy. By the time you get that letter the problem has most likely been solved. At the same time phone the camp to let them know about the letter as then the camp can personally check on your child based on that information.
17) Make sure you ask any possible question of the Camp Directors before the summer. That could mean making five calls or sending 15 emails. The Camp Director should be there for you every step of the way and you should feel they are partnering with your family to help support your child.
18) Keep in mind that anything worthwhile in life is a challenge and often camp is a process that can take days, or even weeks to reach that ‘magical point’ and often the campers that have the most initial challenges are the ones that need camp the most and benefit most from the overnight camp experience.