Insider's Guide to Summer Camp

You've booked the summer camp--now here are 12 things parents REALLY need to know to ensure their child has a great experience.

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    1. Follow the Packing List

    Sounds like a no-brainer, doesn't it? Most camps send a list to parents several weeks before the camp's start date. The list usually contains must-haves (soap, shampoo, laundry detergent) and must-nots (cell phones, electronic games, MP3 players). If you don't study the packing list carefully you may discover later (with tears on the side) that your child can't have his favorite electronic game with him or can't swim without the goggles you forgot.

    Bending the rules, even a little, is discouraged and may have surprising repercussions on your child, experts say. "By encouraging your children to sneak in forbidden items, you're sending the message that they are somehow special and rules don't apply to them," says Ann Sheets, past president of the American Camp Association (ACA) in Martinsville, Indiana (ACAcamps.org). "This will cause problems with the staff and with fellow campers, which won't help your child settle in."

    San Antonio mom Julie Finley ran into a problem when she sent an over-the-counter drug with one of her sons to camp. "If the camp says no medicines without prescriptions, they mean it," she warns. "Despite the instructions, I sent Tylenol with our youngest just to be safe. (He's prone to headaches.) He had to deal with the ramifications of my trying to be too prepared. The way he tells it, they treated it like drug smuggling, but I don't think it was that serious," she says. The lesson learned: "You have to trust that the camp personnel are well trained to deal with the typical needs of campers, including a headache!"

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    2. Book the Doctor ASAP

    When the welcome letter, medical forms, and packing list arrive, it may seem as though you have all kinds of time to get organized. Be aware, however, that other campers all over your town (and beyond) are getting similar packets with similar forms and packing lists. If your child needs a physical in order to attend camp, make the appointment right away, before available time slots fill up. If it's just a matter of getting health forms signed by your health-care provider, get them signed immediately and send them in. If your camp prefers medical releases and info hand-delivered on the first day, file them in a camp folder so you remember where they are. And shop early for supplies!

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    3. Label, Label, Label

    "I can't emphasize this enough," says Kent Bredehoeft, camp scout master for Boy Scout campers at the H. Roe Bartle Scout Reservation in Osceola, Missouri: "Label everything with your child's name! We stay in tents. The kids really do not stay organized with their tent mates. Their belongings just become one big pile of stuff until they have to clean up before visiting day. If their things aren't labeled, it's impossible for them to sort out their belongings."

    Susan Spence, who has worked as a camp director and program director as various camps in North Carolina, seconds Bredehoeft's advice. "Lost and found takes up way too much time in a camp setting," she says. "Your child's experience will be so much better if he or she isn't worried about losing unlabeled items."

    To make labeling easier, give yourself a few nights to get everything organized—before the dreaded "night before." Use a permanent marker and make sure you print legibly. Or order printed fabric labels for clothing, towels, and bedding—all available in both sew-on and iron-on form.

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    4. Provide a Sneak Peek

    Whether he's a Boy Scout roughing it in a tent or a science whiz staying in a dorm, explain to your child what to expect in terms of accommodations. Photos from camp websites can help with this. Some programs even encourage visits ahead of time to give campers an idea of what the experience will be like.

    "We had one child who was unpleasantly surprised that there were no box springs on the beds at a camp one summer," says Sheets. "Her parents had not prepared her for what the cabins would be like."

    Another must: Make sure your child knows that camps (and dorms) don't have bathtubs. "Especially for younger campers, this can be an issue," Sheets says. "Make sure before you send them, your kids know how to shower and wash his or her own hair."

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    5. Do a Test Run

    If your child has never been away from home without you, arrange for a sleepover or two at a friend's—or even the grandparents'—house well before it's time to leave for camp. "This a good 'warm-up' for being away from you at camp," says Sheets. "It will show them that they can have fun and survive quite well without you."

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    6. Make It Easier to Make Friends

    Sometimes kids worry about whether they'll make friends at camp. Jennifer Higgins, mom of two veterans of an academic summer camp at the University of Virginia, offers this tip: "Every year I suggest the girls pack something that has their school name and/or Ocean City, New Jersey (a favorite summer vacation spot), on it. These items have served as a good conversation starter with other kids. They also pack nail polish, remover, cotton balls, gossip magazines, and Frisbees. These just give the girls something to do around the suite at night or to entice some outside play."

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    7. Prepare for Homesickness

    "Most kids feel at least a twinge of homesickness, and that's OK," says Spence, the former camp director. "It's important to talk about it leading up to camp, but be sure to let them know that the emotion is normal and you're sure they can handle it. The staff is there to help." And make sure that your worries or "kidsickness" doesn't rub off on your child and make her more nervous than she already is.

    In fact, when it comes to parental involvement if homesickness hits, less is more, camp experts say. As a mom, Higgins instituted this philosophy herself. During her younger daughter's first summer at camp, the counselors called about her homesickness.

    "I'm going to sound like Meanie Mom, but I knew she could do it, so I told her to get on with it, basically. I was much nicer, but that sums it up," she recalls. "I told the counselors that my daughter was theirs to deal with and I was NOT there, so I was leaving it to them. I did mention that if they felt she was going to be a danger to herself, to call me immediately. Of course, that didn't happen. She was fine and ended up loving it."

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    8. Stay in Touch the Right Way

    Some programs allow for cell phone use and e-mail on a daily basis; others eschew all forms of communication but "snail mail." Be sure you clearly understand your child's camp communication policies. "The camp may even have a 'no package' policy," says Spence. "This means if your child gets a package, it will be sent back. Make sure grandparents and other relatives are aware of these policies, too, to avoid hurt feelings." Regardless of a camp's policy, "Everybody likes to get a letter," says Bredehoeft. "Just keep it light. For example, no long descriptions of family events held in the camper's absence or sloppy sign-offs that end with, 'We REALLY miss you.'"

    Hope Eliahou, a mother of two daughters in Topanga, California, has found that even though her older daughter is allowed to email her parents every day from Cub Creek Science Camp in Rolla, Missouri, Eliahou hears from her only once or twice a week. "I heard from her more when she was younger and writing home was mandatory, less now that she's in the older division and computer time is an elective," Eliahou say. "I'm happy to hear from her whenever she writes, but as these things go, I consider no news good news, since it means she's off having fun with her friends."

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    9. Don't Panic

    Many camps set up a link on their websites or blogs where parents can view photos of campers during daily activities. Eliahou says her daughter's camp, for example, posts between 75 and 200 photos of the day's activities every night. Keep in mind, though, that the staff will be very busy actually running the camp. Updates may be sporadic. "Don't panic if you don't see your child every day, in every set of photos," says Spence. "It doesn't mean she's off crying somewhere; it just means she wasn't in that particular shot."

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    10. Don't Redecorate

    Remember, your kids are having a blast, but when they come home, they'll want it to be home. "Don't redo your child's room while she's away," warns Sheets, who knows a parent who did just that and ended up with a very unhappy returning camper. The transition from camp back to "real life" can be difficult. It's best not to throw any surprises into the mix.

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    11. Be Prepared to Be Surprised

    Camp can change kids. They'll probably come home having experienced leadership and autonomy like never before. They'll likely be enthusiastic to show off new skills. They may even shut you out a bit or surprise you with how their demeanor or relationships—even with siblings—has changed.

    When Columbia, South Carolina, mom Melanie Michel sent her soon-to-be eighth-grade daughter and soon-to-be seventh-grade son to a camp for middle-schoolers, she didn't expect them to return home as best friends—but that's exactly what happened. "I never could have predicted that camp would bring them so close together," she says. "They came home with common friends and stories and shared experiences. They would huddle over the pictures [from camp] and laugh and tell stories. It was something they had that was apart from the rest of us in the family—it was all theirs and they didn't think we would understand." But, as experts warn and Michel found out, the other shoe eventually will drop, so enjoy the closeness while you can!

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    12. Warning: There May Be "Campsickness"

    Shortly after Michel's kids got home from their 10-day camp session, the fact that the experience was over began to sink in. "They actually experienced 'campsickness,'" she recalls, "meaning they both missed camp so much and felt sad being back at home away from their friends and counselors. They both fell into a sad/exhausted/bored-being-back-at-home state."

    To help with this transition, encourage your child to continue communication with camp friends, whether through phone calls, letters, or e-mail or social media sites if you're comfortable with that, Bredehoeft suggests. "I remember, I hated to leave camp when I was a Scout," he says. "Communication can help. And sometimes, just knowing you'll be able to do it again next year helps too."

    So does getting them busy with something else. Consider a new, regular activity, or plan a family vacation to be taken after they've had a week or two to rest (and you've caught up on all the postcamp laundry).