Summer camp is a rite of passage for kids. Here's how to not mess it up! Get tips on everything from picking a summer camp to ensuring your kid has the best time ever.

By Jennifer Bush and Barbara Alden Wilson
Jasper Cole/Getty Images

The popularity of summer camp is soaring, with attendance topping 14 million each year, according to Marla Coleman, president of the American Camping Association (ACA) in Martinsville, IN. The good news is that there are more than 14,000 day and resident camps in the U.S. according to 2017 ACA report. That means you have plenty of options, from specialty camps focusing on such activities as computers, acting, or hockey, to traditional cabin camping in the woods.

Before you dive into the selection process, start first with determining whether your child is ready for camp — and truly interested. Most kids start sleepaway (resident) camp at age 7 or 8, while day camp caters to kids as young as 3. If you're contemplating sleepaway camp, consider whether your youngster has spent the night away from home with friends or relatives. If so, was he comfortable with it?

"If a child isn't able to separate from parents in other settings, that would be a red flag," explains Coleman. A child should also possess a baseline of skills to cope without Mom or Dad, such as the ability to cut his meat at mealtime. "Not that kids won't get help," Coleman says, "but they'll need to have the foundations there."

If your child seems cool to the idea of camp, don't push, says Coleman. But do make sure he has a clear understanding of what it's like and hasn't been influenced by misinformation from friends.

How to Choose a Summer Camp

Once you're confident that your child is ready and eager for camp, Coleman suggests that you concentrate your search on accredited camps. To qualify, a camp must meet more than 300 standards related to health, safety, and program quality. The ACA Web site includes a list of all accredited camps, searchable by region, cost, and a variety of other criteria. Camp fairs held through the country are another way to get an overview of options and speak directly with representatives from individual camps.

Here's a look at some of the options you have to choose from:

Sleepaway or day camp? Sleepaway camp ranges from 1-8 weeks and offers a variety of supervised activities. Day camp is appropriate for kids who aren't interested in or prepared for sleepaway camp. It generally features activities similar to sleepaway camp, as well as transportation to and from the site.

Specialty or traditional camp? Specialty camps focus on a particular theme or activity, such as sports or the arts. Traditional camps provide a more general experience, typically including a mixture of arts and crafts, sports, and outdoor events.

Is a special-needs camp best? These cater to kids with mental, medical, or physical disabilities.

Next, narrow your choices based on your child's needs, interests, and personality. What is the camp's philosophy? Some are competitive, while others are more cooperative. Does your child thrive on a tight schedule? Look for a structured environment, rather than a looser setting. Is he looking for exposure to many new skills and activities (as you'd find in a traditional camp setting), or would he prefer to hone in on one of his abilities (aviation, art, dance, football)?

And one insider tip: If you do opt for an away-from-home adventure, consider having your child's best friend attend the same camp if possible, especially if this is his first camp foray.

Making the Final Decision

When you've got a handful of finalists, it's time to talk to the camp director. Some questions to ask include:

  • What's your educational and career background?
  • Is the camp accredited?
  • What's the camp's guiding philosophy?
  • What's the rate of camper and counselor return each year?
  • What's the counselor training program like?
  • What's the ratio of counselor to camper?
  • What are your safety and medical arrangements (especially important if the camp isn't accredited)?
  • Can I speak to parents whose kids have attended the camp?

Finally, take a day to visit the camp with your child, if possible. And trust your instincts, says Coleman. "The bottom line," she emphasizes, "is whether you feel comfortable entrusting your child to this camp."

Preparing Your Kid for Camp

"Camp is a very intense experience because it's 24 hours a day away from home," says Connie Coutellier, director of professional development for ACA. "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.

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."

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."

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

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 ACA. "This will cause problems with the staff and with fellow campers, which won't help your child settle in."

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!

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.

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."

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."

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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