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Preparing for Sleepaway Camp

Outward Bound

Part of your child's success at camp will depend on the preparations made before she ever leaves home. Whether it's working through pre-departure jitters or knowing what to pack, following a few simple guidelines will ensure that your youngster starts her experience on the right foot.

Some common concerns for kids going to camp, according to Connie Coutellier, director of professional development for the American Camping Association in Martinsville, IN, are fitting in socially, coping away from the support of Mom and Dad, and feeling pressure to succeed at new activities.

"Camp is a very intense experience because it's 24 hours a day away from home," she says. "That's exciting, but it's different from going to school and coming home. It's making new friends and having a new daily routine."

Coutellier recommends that you discuss the upcoming experience by fielding your kid's concerns and highlighting their strengths. "Review some of the things they did well this past year, and explain how at camp they'll have an opportunity to build on these skills and develop new ones," she says. You might also talk about problems they had -- and suggest how they can better deal with similar situations at camp.

And listen to your child describe relationships at school. "Both difficulties and successes there could carry over to camp," says Coutellier. "If a child is being bullied at school or feeling insecure, you could talk to him about the opportunity to make new friends or how she could be a good friend to another child."

It's also important for both you and your child to have realistic expectations about the camp experience. "It's like the rest of life; it has high points and low ones," says Bruce Muchnick, Ed.D., a Glenside, PA-based licensed psychologist who works extensively with camps. "There are times when your child will feel great and other times she may feel unhappy or bored."

In addition to having these conversations, there are plenty of practical steps you can take to help prepare your child for camp:

  • Review the camp's brochure and Web site -- or better yet, attend an open house while camp is in session so your child can get a stronger sense of what it's like.
  • Learn details of the facilities. Will your child have to walk to the bathroom at night? Some kids, especially those from urban areas, are unaccustomed to total darkness, so it's a good idea to practice using a flashlight. Will she be exposed to a lot of bugs and wildlife? Consider taking a family camping trip in advance to familiarize your child with the outdoor environment, nighttime sounds, and roughing it a bit.
  • Involve your child in the packing process to give him a feeling of ownership over the experience. Work off the list that the camp provides, and make sure clothes have been worn and washed so they're more comfortable. If your child is attached to a sentimental item, such as a stuffed animal or blanket, let him bring it along.
  • Explain the basics of cohabitating to your child. "Many kids have never shared a bedroom, and at camp they may sleep in a room with eight children," says Coutellier. Show her how to keep her possessions organized so they're easy to access and don't spill over into someone else's space. Before camp starts, consider having slumber parties or allowing your child to attend more sleepovers as a way to expose her to group living.

  • Teach your child how to handle clothes and toiletries. Explain what to do with dirty clothes (keep them separate so they can be laundered) and wet ones (hang them up to dry rather than tucking them in with other clothes). Show him how to keep toothpaste tidy and carry toiletries in a bucket to the bathroom.
  • Discuss how you'll communicate when your child is away. Camps have various philosophies on phone calls -- some discourage it; some allow calls only at certain times of day. Come up with alternate plans with your child, such as e-mail or letter writing, and be sure to give your little one a supply of stationery and stamps. Talking about the format and frequency of contact reduces the possibility of bruised feelings and disappointment later on, explains Dr. Muchnick.
  • Consider writing a letter in advance that you slip into your child's trunk, or mail one that will be waiting for her when she arrives. "This letter becomes a sort of transitional object. It reminds her of the connection with Mom and Dad and makes her feel more at ease," Dr. Muchnick says. A family photo can also help.

Whatever you do, says Coutellier, don't tell your child how much you'll miss her. Though parents often have just as much trouble with the separation as kids do, you'll only make the situation more difficult by expressing this. Instead, she suggests, it's better to say, "We're excited for you and all that you'll get to do."

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