As any summer camp enthusiast will tell you, sleepaway camp can be GREAT for kids. And experts* agree: many educators, developmental psychologists, neurobiologists, counselors, and social scientists who have studied the benefits and outcomes of summer camp have concluded that the experience has the potential to be as meaningful as it is fun. Preparing your child for the camp experience will help them make the most of their opportunity to develop these five essential life skills:
Camp offers the chance to experience new ideas, try new skills, and encounter new perspectives—or deepen existing ones—if your camper is receptive to them. The unfamiliarity of camp, when combined with the perfectly natural trepidation that often accompanies new experiences, may cause even the most energetically curious and adventurous child to demur. You can help your child be open to everything camp offers by talking with (and listening to!) them about what they might experience—from feelings of homesickness to outdoor adventures—so they can be prepared. Knowing what might be coming will go a long way in helping your camper handle her anxiety. But be careful not to over sell your expectations of how great camp will be—leave room for her to make her own judgments about her experience. In short: give them information enough to be prepared and room enough to be open to the experience in their own way.
One of the best things kids take away from camp is the discovery that they have the power to cope with changing circumstances and comfort themselves when things don’t go just as they’d prefer. Experiencing homesickness or worry, wanting to spend more time doing a particularly fun activity than the schedule allows, eating what’s served at the mess hall, or figuring out how to share close quarters with their bunkmates are all teachable moments at camp. The key, here, is immersion: when kids are fully immersed and “present” in the camp environment, they have more opportunities to learn how to adapt. That’s why it is so important, as parents, to abide by the camp’s rules about phone and electronics use and to be thoughtful about what you communicate to your camper: ask them questions, tell them you are excited to hear their news, but try to avoid telling them anything that will make them feel like they are missing out by being away. Most importantly, don’t strike a bargain with your child to bring her home at the first sign of discomfort: the consensus among camp and child development professionals is that promising a “rescue” will undermine your child’s ability to overcome the challenges they may face.
While a good summer camp will always prove a safe, structured environment, campers are often given a good deal of freedom within that structure. They will not only be asked to keep track of their things, they will need to listen for and follow directions, keep their bed made and their space tidy, shower and brush their teeth without prodding, and make good choices about what they eat. Campers may also need to manage their schedule and get themselves where they are supposed to be when they are supposed to be there. And because camp is a community, they will likely be required to pitch in with camp clean-up and help care for and maintain the spaces and supplies they all share. So before sending your child off to camp, put them through the paces: be sure they know how to care for wet shoes and clothes, make a bed, pack their belongings in to their bag so everything fits, or tend to their hair. Talk with them about how the things they do, or do not do, may affect others in their community. Equipping them to do these simple tasks and to think about their impact on others will help your child shoulder their share of the responsibility in their camp community, making it a more meaningful—and enjoyable—experience for them.
While your child may seem taller or generally more grown up when she returns from camp, that change is evident in more than inches and posture: summer camp has an extraordinary ability to nurture emotional and social growth. Making new friends, discovering new interests or talents, sharing space, and learning to manage emotions all contribute to your child’s well-being and ability to thrive. Preparing your child for the social and emotional experience of camp may not be as straightforward as teaching them to pack or talking with them about their itinerary, but it is nonetheless important. Share with them tips for starting conversations with people they’ve just met, and teach them how to reach out to the camp staff if they are troubled—so often kids will go silent because they just don’t know how to talk to an adult or mentor about a problem. Giving them the language they need to connect with others may be all the encouragement they need.
Openness, resilience, responsibility, growth—these all lead to healthy independence. Camp offers children a place to belong that is uniquely their own, and they often will take ownership of their camp identity: be sure to show them that you honor that with what you do before and after their camp experience. Before going to camp, involve your child in the decision making, let them pack, and take care not to downplay any concerns or questions they have. When they return, ask them what they learned and what meant the most to them, then give them opportunities to practice those skills at home. Invite them to talk at length about their experience and to share their memories of camp as time goes by. Letting them own their experience and following their lead will help them achieve a strong sense of self and empower them to get the most out of this, and any future, summer camp experience.