There are camps focused on every pastime-ones for junior basketball buffs and half-pint horse lovers, fishing fanatics, wrestling enthusiasts, and kids who are into magic, chess, photography, dance, or any of a host of other hobbies. But despite the ostensible draw of constant entertainment and a bevy of new friends, the transition away from the familiar home environment to an unknown camp atmosphere-especially to a resident "sleepaway" camp-isn't always fun and games.
Your job as a parent has just begun if you've identified the best summer place for your child. The next all-important goal: to soften his or her transition into camp-offered independent exploration and psychological growth.
Looking Forward to Fun
To ease a potentially traumatic separation from family and help ensure that your child is a happy camper, consider these tips from the American Camp Association (ACA), promoter of quality camps, including day, resident and special-needs varieties:
- Make camp-related decisions together with your children. Let kids participate as much as possible in camp planning,-such as where to go and what to take. "The more you can familiarize your kids with the experience ahead-of-time, the less scary it will be," points out Peg Smith, CEO of the ACA.
- Keep expectations realistic-ups and downs included. Talk about the fun-filled times that your child can expect to have at camp, emphasizing the goals of enjoyment and relaxation, not success. But don't forget to acknowledge the possibility of some unhappy periods, too.
- Convey confidence in their coping ability. Encourage children to talk about any nervousness related to going away, and express trust that they can get through any separation pangs that plague them.
The Biggest Hump: Homesickness
Homesickness is natural when leaving well-known home turf; almost 96 percent of kids at overnight camp for at least two weeks reported feeling homesick at some point, according to one study.
Camp authorities suggest these prevention techniques:
- Give children practice time away—say, at a friend's house for a weekend or a few days. If they seem unprepared for sleepaway camp, Smith encourages, "Start with day camp, and let them graduate to sleepaway. Or start with a family camp." Family camps offer activities for all ages, allowing family members to enjoy time together—and sometimes apart while enjoying different activities—for a couple of days or longer.
- Talk about homesickness and how it is a normal feeling that is not to be feared. But don't burden your children with how much you're going to miss them. "Tell them 'I'll be so excited to hear about your camp,'" recommends Smith, "rather than 'I don't know what I'll do with you away' or 'I can't wait until you come back home.'" Don't fall into the common trap, warns the ACA, of making the "pickup deal," i.e., "If you feel homesick, I'll come pick you up." This is the type of confidence-eroding message that can make children doubt themselves and give up too soon. The best thing to boost kids' confidence: beating a bout of homesickness and regaining control of their camp experience.
Open Lines of Communication
Look into a specific camp's policy about campers' phone calls and e-mail access. And use a couple of low-tech techniques to make young campers feel closer to home. First, prepare prestamped, pre-addressed envelopes to take to camp—writing offers an outlet for concerns and a comforting connection with the home front. (Think about writing to your child in advance, too, so there will be a letter waiting.)
Finally, along with the practical day-to-day items—each camp should provide a list of these types of things to pack—encourage your child to take a personal reminder of home. A beloved stuffed animal or family picture, for example, is sure to help your child feel more at home while at camp.