How To Know If Your Child Is Ready, And How To Pick The Right Camp
By Jodi Dee
When it comes to the world of camp, there is truly something for everyone. With programs to meet every interest, price range and schedule, how do you go about picking the right one for you child? As a parent, it comes down doing a little homework.
The first thing to consider is if your child is ready to attend camp, and if so, it helps to be clear what their goals are at camp. Is it to make new friends, learn a new skill, or try something new? Is camp mainly for child care in the summer, or an alternative to traditional child care? Half-day, full-day, or sleepaway?
Some camps are focused on one activity or skill, like drawing or art projects. Some camps are strictly to learn or practice a sport, like soccer. If your child is very active, an art camp may not be the best choice, unless they break up the day with physical activities. Most full day camps will have a set daily schedule. Be sure to review the curriculum and schedule outlined.
Many parents wonder what the best age and is to time to send their child to a camp. There are some 6 and 7 year olds who get dropped off and eager to go, while some 11 year olds experience angst and fear being in a new environment with new kids. The answer really depends on your individual child, his or her age, and developmental readiness, which varies significantly from child to child (even of the same age).
Early Childhood – Ages 4-7
Young children are typically not ready for overnight camp, although some children younger than 7 may be, depending upon their maturity level and prior experience. However, children who aren’t ready for overnight can thrive at a day camp! If a child has spent weeks in the summer or overnights with family members, and are used to sleepovers with friends, they might be just fine.
When selecting a camp at this age, look for one that focuses on preschool or primary grades that provide a good mix of age appropriate activities and lots of movement. Children at this age need to play and use their bodies, and experience lots of new things. Ideally, there should be a small counselor-to-camper ratio for younger children. One counselor for six children is a good size for children ages 6 to 8. Parents should compare their child’s age with the ages of other campers, and make sure they are not in a group with older children. Find out in advance the age ranges, and how many have signed up before committing.
Middle Childhood – Ages 8-10
While some children aged 8 to 10 may still be more comfortable at a day camp, many in this age range are ready for overnight camp. Children of this age are seeking much more intellectual stimulation and physical challenges, and prefer specific activities like art, sports, or music, that target their interests. Many will want to do camps with their friends or team mates. These are wonderful ways to extend friendships and school comradery.
Early Adolescence – Ages 11-12
Children ages 11 to 12 become much more focused on individual achievement and success. At this age they are usually seeking to further develop a skill or talent, or will prefer a camp with a wide variety of activities. They would benefit a camp that allows them to try new things and gain new skills in a supportive and non-threatening environment. Most camps will list the age ranges. Camps that cater to 11 to 12 year olds typically focus on more group and team activities, which is great for social and emotional development and confidence in group settings.
Middle Adolescence Ages 14-16
Children ages 14 to 16 (mid-teens) often are evolving their identity and abilities, and that comes with insecurities and self-doubt. Choose a camp that provides opportunities for your child to succeed and be with other kids their age. If he or she is passionate about a particular activity, consider a camp that specializes in that activity. If his or her interests are more widespread and varied, look for a camp where she can try many different things (like a YMCA outdoor camp that has swimming, kayaking, camping skills, basketball, tennis courts, and more). If this is your child’s first time at camp, talk to the camp staff about how they integrate new campers with returners.
Getting Them Ready:
- Involve and bring them shopping for camp, pack together
- Talk about what they are excited or concerned about
- Pack a favorite toy or item, like a t-shirt, family picture, cap or small stuffed animal to bring if they miss home
- Have them “practice” sleeping over at relatives or a friends
- Share stories about your own camp experience (positive memories!)
- Point out what your child does well and how that will be an asset at camp
- Let them know the camp counselors are there for them, and to help
- Have conversations with your child about how to meet new friends
- Tell them who to turn to if they have issues with their counselor
- Explain that they may not like all activities or be as good at all — they don’t have to, it is for fun!
- Tell them not to worry about being everyone’s friend, one or two good friends at camp is great
- Encourage them to have fun…and let them know you can’t wait to hear all about it
In the end parents have to use their judgment in determining a child’s readiness for camp. In addition, the type of camp (day camp or overnight), the distance from home, and the camp’s structure and philosophy are all factors in determining suitability for your child.
The best camps not only teach new skills or activities, but teamwork, navigating social and emotional situations, self-reliance, and resilience. Read the reviews by other parents and ask for recommendations from parents of your children’s friends. This often help hone in on the best camps for you.