Sleep-away camp conjures up wonderful images of outdoor activities, new friendships and growing independence -- not to mention a break from homework battles, carpools and the need for a babysitter. But it's also an anxiety-ridden process for many parents. Is your child ready to spend weeks away from home? How do you find the right camp for your child? At what age do most kids start sleep-away camp? Can you visit a camp before you send your kids there?
"Choosing the right camp can be really hard for some parents," admits Whitney Goodman a Pleasantville, N.Y.-based mother, who sent her nine-year-old twins to camp for the first time last summer. "For me it was a no brainer because camp was such an integral part of my childhood," Goodman says. Which camp? That was a no brainer. She chose the same camp (Camp Eisner in Great Barrington, M.A.) she went to as a child. "I'm still attached to the camp, and always brought the kids with me to reunions over the years, so that they'd have a relationship to the camp as well," she explains.
For parents without a connection to a particular camp, here are some helpful tips for finding the right camp for your little camper.
Attend Camp Fairs
Goodman suggests attending camp fairs, where you'll meet camp representatives, watch DVDs and get brochures. (To find a camp fair near you, visit the website for the nonprofit American Camp Association.
Ask the Right Questions
Many parents turn to camp consultants like Patti Roberts, also known as "The Camp Lady." Roberts owns Student Summers, a camp consultancy service that is free to parents, with camps paying her fee.
"When I first speak with parents, I ask them all sorts of questions, such as whether they want to a coed camp or a sports-oriented camp, and whether there are any specific dietary or religious needs," she explains. "I find out how far they want to travel and what length of time they want their child to attend the camp."
She'll also discuss budget: Private camps range from $1000 to $1500 a week, but there are non-profit organizations like the Girl Scouts that cost much less. Check out these 8 Free or Cheap Summer Camp Options »
Talk to the Camp Director
It's also important to speak directly with the camp director, says Marla Coleman, a past president of the American Camp Association (ACA) and a founding director of Coleman Country Day Camp in Merrick, N.Y. Find out:
- How many kids are in each bunk
- Whether campers choose their own activities or follow a set schedule
- The age of counselors
- The counselor-to-camper ratio
- How often the camp and campers communicate with parents
"You need to decide your own level of comfort with these things," Coleman says. You can also ask the director for references, and speak to parents about their own experiences.
Tour Your Options
Picking a sleep-away camp can be like choosing a college. Many families will go on camp tours the summer before sending their children. In-person camp visits allow you to really see the camps in action. While DVDs and brochures can be helpful, if you're able to spend a few hours walking around, talking to campers and counselors and checking out some activities, you can get a feel for the energy and sense if it's a good fit for your child.
Some camps offer prospective camper weekends, which let kids experience what it would be like to attend for the summer. Goodman first sent her children for a try-out over Columbus Day weekend. "They loved it, and it made them very excited for the upcoming summer," she says.
Include Kids in the Process
Laurel Barrie, co-owner of Camp Connection, another camp consultancy agency, recommends including your child in the decision making process. "We advise parents to narrow down the choices to two or three options, and then let the child choose the one they want to go to," says Barrie. "Letting your child help make the decision contributes to their excitement, and can ease any anxiety they may have about going away from home."
Prepare for Nervousness and Homesickness
Still, some nervousness is normal. Roberts recommends asking whether there are any "pre-reunion" get-togethers before camp starts, so kids can get to know each other. "If not, ask the director for names of bunkmates who live nearby and arrange a meeting," she says.
"When it's time to leave, let them know it's okay to miss home," says Coleman, who advises practicing going to the bathroom with a flashlight, having sleepovers away from home or organizing clothes for the laundry. And never offer to pick up your child early. "It sends a message that you don't think your child can handle it, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy," says Coleman.
And don't underestimate your own separation anxiety. "Kidsickness -- parents missing their children -- is as much of a reality as homesickness," says Coleman, noting that most parents are used to being in constant contact with their children through cell phones or email. Ultimately, remember that it's for a relatively short amount of time. "If there's a problem at camp, you'd hear about it," says Coleman. "No news truly is good news!"
For more advice, read up on How to Prevent Homesickness at Camp »