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The 4-1-1 for First-Time Campers

It’s almost time for the kids to leave for day- or sleep-away camp. For some kids, it’s easy (especially for the ones who’ve spent time at camp before). They’re looking forward to seeing old friends, practicing sports, arts and crafts, exploring interests they’ve put aside during the school year, and discovering new talents. For other kids, especially the ones for whom this whole camp thing is new, the time can be nearly as stressful as it is promising: What can they expect? Will they make friends? Will it be scary? If it’s a sleep-away camp, will they be homesick? What if they don’t like it? Now is the time to address these potential issues and put them to rest as much as possible. Here are some tips to consider.

As much as possible, decide together what camp experience your child will have. When the child has a say in the decision, they’ll be more apt to be invested in the experience, and more inclined to see that their desires and decisions are important to you. This builds confidence. Talk about what kind of camp your family is interested in: Sports? Coding or robotics skills? The Arts? Day camp or a sleepover camp? Church-affiliated?

Emphasize the positive. Kids pick up on our moods, our worries, our pleasures and our prejudices. Talk about the fun things that await them: Doing new and different activities that their busy school year doesn’t leave time for, spending loads of time on a favorite sport or activity (lacrosse camp, drama camp, computer camp, music camp, soccer camp), and having relaxation time.

Be realistic. Camp is like real life. Some days are fantastic, filled with laughter and friendship, and some days aren’t. The important thing to remember about time at camp - again, just like life - is that it is what we make of it. Teach your child to recognize and appreciate the good things in life and to build joyful memories about them (by journaling and snapping pics, for example), and to move as quickly as possible beyond life’s setbacks. Teach your child to learn from setback and not to dwell on them. If you have your own happy memories of summer camp - stories of friends and adventures, tales of how you rose above small disasters – now’s the time to share them with your child. Kids want to be independent, but they need a little help. Learning from your experiences can be very helpful to your child.

Give your child plenty of opportunities to talk about their concerns. This requires a special balance of listening empathetically and staying positive. Listen, but don’t indulge outlandish ‘what-if’ scenarios that kids are so good at visualizing (e.g. “What if a monster rises out of the lake?” or, “What if every single one of the other kids hates me?”). Bring the conversations back to the promising ‘what-ifs’ of good times, friends, exploration and discovery (e.g. “What if you make a great new friend at camp?” or, “What if you finally perfect that difficult soccer move?”).

Visit ahead of time. Just like when your child is headed to a new school, it’s always good to let your child have a sneak peek by visiting the camp ahead of time to get the lay of the land. If possible, visit with a friend co-camper to see what the place looks like, to become familiar with it, to make your child feel less surprised on the first day of their camp experience. If you can’t visit the camp before hand, look at the camp’s website and brochure together or talk with other kids who’ve been to that camp before.

Get a camp buddy. I am a big proponent of ‘study buddies’ during the school year, and I recommend ‘camp buddies’ too. If your kid can go to camp with a friend, that’s great! If not, encourage them to make new friends early. Friendships (and socializing skills) are lifelong blessings.

Keep in touch. If the camp allows, keep in touch with your child through email, text and written letters. Keep the messages upbeat, supportive and friendly. Emphasize the positive. Express interest in what they are learning, the experiences they’re having and the talents they’re developing.

Pack right. Make sure your child has all the necessities: Extra clothes, underwear, socks, swimsuits, sunscreen, etc., without overloading them like that hapless little brother in A Christmas Story whose mother suited him up with so many winter clothes he couldn’t walk or get up if he fell.

Help the camp counselors. Just like teachers at school, camp counselors want your child to succeed and have an enjoyable experience. For example, if your child has allergies or special medications, make sure you’ve communicated that to the camp ahead of time - they won’t know what you don’t tell them.

Get yourself ready. If this is the first time your child will be away from home, realize that you’ll need some period of adjustment too. Plan some time to relax, enjoy the change in routine (it’ll be back to its school-year intensity before you know it), and catch up on chores or reading or your own ‘on-hold’ interests.

Summer camp, whether day- or sleep-away, can be times of fun, spontaneity and opportunity to indulge in activities the school year can’t fit in. Encourage your kids to have fun and learn new things, which you will “ooh” and “aah” about warmly when they come home.

Richard Bavaria, Ph.D., is the Senior Vice President of Education Outreach at Sylvan Learning. For more information, visit Dr. Rick on his blog, drrickblog.com.

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