Expert advice on how to know if your child is ready for overnight camp

How do you know if your child is ready for overnight camp? It’s a really important question, and one that we are frequently asked by parents. As we often do, we went to our friend and expert on all things camp related Renee Flax, Director of Camper Placement at the American Camp Association office in NYC for her thoughts on this subject.

So Renee, what advice do you offer to parents weighing whether or not to send their child to overnight camp? 

camp-agent-renee-flax.jpgThis is a big transition in a family’s life and by investing some time in making the decision the outcome can have a lasting and rewarding impact on your child’s development. Camp is a wonderful experience; it is a supportive community where your child can make lifelong friends, gain self-confidence and grow emotionally. They will be influenced by positive role models along with having fun at new and exciting activities. If it sounds like a once in a lifetime opportunity, it is!

To begin this process, look at your child with an objective eye – how do other people describe him or her to you and how well does he or she interact with friends and adults? What activities does your child enjoy the most and is this a child that will need a great deal of nurturing while away at summer camp? Can you see your child thriving in an independent but nurturing setting? Does he or she need more individualized attention than most of his or her peers? Does your child do better in an environment with more or less structure, and is he or she likely to do better focusing on one or two activities, or having a whole range to explore? All of these questions will help you in seeing your child’s strengths and personal needs which will help lead you to the right type of environment.

One of the most common questions parents ask is when is the right time for a child to start overnight camp? The answer is when it feels right for your child and you, though I also know that for some it is hard to imagine their child ever being ready! Generally, someone can go to camp at age 8 but typically, unless they are the younger sibling, most kids start later. On average, children entering the 3rd or 4th grade are starting their overnight experience, whether in a 1-2, 3-4 or even 7 week program. Often, girls are ready before boys but this is very individual and depends on the maturity of the child. Typically, a child will let you know when they are ready by exhibiting certain signs. There are several key criteria a parent can consider when making this decision and can be used as a guideline. These include:

  • Does your child have overnights at other people’s homes? One of the first keys that a child is ready to go away is that they can sleep at a friends, grandparents, and/or a neighbor’s house and not feel anxious about the experience. They may get homesick on occasion but if they feel panicked and need to come home in the middle of the night then they may not be ready for an extended period away from home.
  • Is your youngster mature enough and self-assured to take care of certain aspects themselves? Of course there will be supportive counselors there to assist in this process every step of the way, but your child will need to do certain things independently. For instance, a camper makes their own bed, showers and brushes their hair and teeth, puts their clothes away and dresses themselves. Does your child express himself clearly so that when he needs assistance, he will be able to ask for it? Being able to self-advocate is one of the most important skills a child will need while participating in overnight camp. 
  • Has your child asked to go to overnight camp? Often, a child hears friends talking about their wonderful camp experiences and now they want to go to camp also. The same is true with older siblings or cousins. Just hearing about their positive experiences may be enough to get your child asking about attending a camp, and may also give them enough enthusiasm to acually try out being away from home. It’s amazing to me how crucial it can be for a child to actually want to go to sleepaway camp for them to be successful.
  • If there is an older sibling who has been attending camp then your youngster may be familiar with the camp experience. Perhaps they have even visited their brother or sister at camp and can easily picture what the experience will involve. However, if your child doesn’t have this personal contact, then you can visit camps the summer before your child will attend. This will enable you to see the camp in action and gauge your child’s reaction to the experience. Many overnight camps are available for tours, and as the Director of Camper Placement I would be happy to connect your family with potential camps to tour this coming summer!

Hopefully, your son or daughter will become extremely enthusiastic when they realize what an exciting adventure this will be. Overnight camp can be one of the most positive and fullfilling aspects of a childhood, and is an incredible opportunity for children to make friends, gain independence, and aquire all sorts of important skills.

If you present the concept of overnight camp to your generally outgoing child and he or she becomes shy and overwhelmed then perhaps you might want to wait one more year. Sending a child too early can be a mistake. If you don’t believe that they can be successful then error on the side of caution and wait one more year. As your child matures, many of these issues will resolve themselves. Again, I am available in theAmerican Camp Association, NYNJ office weekdays and can be reached at 212-391-5208 if you have any questions. 

We really want to thank Renee for sharing her expertise with us, and with the entire world! To contact Renee about finding a camp for your son or daughter please also consider visiting the American Camp Association website

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