By Martha Wegner
Imagine my surprise when my little 7-year-old girl announced, “I’m going to camp this summer!” When I assured her that I had already registered her for her favorite day camp, she was quick to correct me, “No, Mom, I’m going to overnight camp. I’m ready.” Today this sweet little girl with the blonde ringlets and 2 missing front teeth has blossomed into an independent 12 year old, ready to start her 5th year of overnight camp. When I ask her what she likes about camp, she says, “Everything!”
Overnight summer camp has indeed been the highlight of my daughter’s years, and looking at the numbers, she is not alone. According to Christopher Thurber and Jon Malinowski, authors of The Summer Camp Handbook (Perspective Publishing, 2000), over 7 million children go to overnight camp each summer. Is it time for your child to join the ranks of these happy campers?
Let’s start by taking a look at the reasons for attending overnight camp. According to Paul Cope, Executive Director at “Camp Champions,” based in Marble Falls, Texas, “An overnight camp experience can prove one of the most significant growth experiences for a child… it gives kids a chance to learn things like respect for others, teamwork, self-confidence and independence.” Add Thurber and Malinowski, “First of all, camp is not school. As if that’s not reason enough for kids to love it, overnight camps offer outdoor activities that most kids don’t have at home or school.”
My daughter’s favorite camp stories include an “elegant” night during which the counselors “dressed up” in beach towels and sandals, wore “fancy” hairdos, and ate their meals with big, clunky kitchen utensils. She tells of a night lying in a tent listening to the rain roll in. She laughs at stories of overturned canoes (in shallow water!), and stories told around the campfire at night. At camp she is a part of unique and tight-knit community, she is enjoying the outdoors, and she is having fun, all without the watchful eye of mom and dad.
Even the not-so-pleasant experiences present opportunities for growth. Her first year at camp she was placed with a counselor who spoke almost no English (she was from Russia). My daughter and her cabin mates quickly deduced that they would need to go to the cabin next door to find out just what to do next, which is exactly what they did. They ended up having a great time. What could have been a disastrous experience turned into a life lesson: not everything in life will go smoothly, Mom won’t always be there to fix things, and I better figure out how to make things right on my own. Her confidence and decision-making skills were never so successfully put to the test.
How do we know if our kids are ready for overnight camp? My daughter made it easy: she told me. According to the YMCA’s website, “Most kids are ready for overnight camp if they hear friends talking about it and eagerly ask a parent if they can go, too. Typically, even though friends are going, if a child isn’t ready, he or she won’t bring it up.” Some children might need a little extra nudge because, frankly, no one in their circle is attending overnight camp.
If you as a parent think they might enjoy camp, now is the time to start “planting the seed.” Show them some websites or brochures of overnight camps, or start telling stories of your own or Cousin Johnny’s positive experience with camp. The point is not necessarily to pressure the child to go to camp; it is to make them aware of the possibilities of overnight camp. Going to camp might be pushing the boundaries of your child’s comfort zone. You as a parent need to decide how far you can push it, but you might just be surprised.
Speaking of comfort zone, it might be time for you as a parent to honestly assess your own comfort level. If you are not feeling confident about sending your child “away” for a week or two, you can be sure your child will know it. This will ultimately result in a tearful, “Come pick me up NOW” phone call from camp.
Do a little research. Talk to other parents and children who have had success with camp. Check out camp web sites. Talk to camp directors. Their stories will convince you that you are giving your child an invaluable experience, the benefits of which will last a lifetime. And let’s not forget, you are giving yourself a brief respite from parenting! You might even get that garage door painted.
Once the exciting decision has been made to go to camp, the real work starts. What camp is right for us? A number of considerations come into play here. We’ve included some resources for you to help you in your research. Don’t forget your most valuable resource: word of mouth. Happy and enthusiastic parents and children are the best advertisement for a good camp experience.
After you’ve made the decision, celebrate! Prepare your child by planning positive overnight experiences at friends’ houses. Visit the camp’s website often. Look through the brochure, and talk about the things he/she will do. If you have the opportunity, visit the camp ahead of time with your child.
My 7-year-old daughter did go to overnight camp that year. When she emerged from the camp bus that last day, I burst into great sobs of relief. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed her. Christine was puzzled, and said, “Mom, why are you crying? I had a great time!” and quickly hopped into our station wagon. As she rattled off her delightful stories of camp, I dried my eyes, kept my mouth shut, and smiled. I knew I had just given my child the gift of a lifetime.