The Trust Factor
July 19, 2019 by Anya Eland

Camp Medeba

Ghost stories, water-skiing, and making S’mores are all things most kids remember doing at overnight camp. For parents though, what they sometimes remember most about their child’s camp experience are the months leading up to the summer, more specifically, the decision-making process regarding what camp their kids should go to.

For many parents, the camp decision is not simply about whether their kids should go to camp, but whether their child is ready to make the jump to overnight camp.

Not an easy decision indeed for how does one know whether their child is ready to graduate to overnight camp from day camp. There is no doubt that overnight camps (sometimes called sleep away camps or residential camps) are very popular but just the thought of sleeping away from home for the first time can be uneasy for both the children and their parents.

There are many decisions and factors to look at when deciding whether a child is ready for overnight camp. Every child is different. There is no one way or the right reason when making the decision to send a child to overnight camp. Some questions to ask include: Is the child independent? Will he/she be okay without parents helping them throughout the day? Will homesickness be a problem?

“There has to be an interest by the child and some things the camp has to offer that will be useful to the child as well,” advises Eric Shendelman, owner of Shendy’s Swim School, and past president of the Ontario Camps Association, when asked what a good time to send a child to overnight camp is.

For Nathan Thompson, the manager of marketing and communications at InterVarsity, and someone who has been involved in Christian camps for more than 15 years, the overnight camp decision is not an easy one.

“It’s difficult to release a child into the care of someone else. There’s a high trust, as you hope for the best but hold in the perspective that, yes my child is going to experience so much good,” he says.

There are a number of steps parents and children can take to prepare for that first overnight camp experience. Due to the independence they offer, simple sleepovers at a grandparent’s or a friend’s house can be beneficial before venturing on that bus to camp for the very first time.

“Having the experience of sleeping over somewhere without mom and dad is a great way to test the waters before overnight camp,” explains Thompson, adding getting a child excited about going to camp is another way to prepare them.

The feeling is normal

Homesickness and nervousness are normal feelings for most kids, especially for first time overnight campers. With that being said, most camps offer such a supportive environment that staff and camp counsellors will do anything to help children overcome their homesickness. This can include pairing them up with a buddy to help distract them through activities.

“The idea is to help them get over the first night, then to the next day, have a good day and at least two good nights,” says Shendelman, explaining it does take time for first-time campers to get acclimated to camp, but with a very supportive staff and environment, children should eventually feel safe and welcomed. “The first night is never a good indicator to see if the child is going to last [their stay].”

It’s also important to coach and encourage children on the adventures and new experiences that they are going to have at camp. Exploring a camp’s website with them and engaging them in the process — asking what interests them and what aspects of camp they look forward to — will go a long way in making kids feel comfortable about the eventual camp they agree to attend.

“Every child has the chance to grow, develop and thrive at an overnight camp (or any camp for that matter) as long as they feel supported in the decision to go there,” says Sydney Nicholson, a past staff member at Camp Brebeuf.

This support comes in many ways, including before the summer even begins. Some camps perform home visits by bringing videos and other camp-related items to show the child.

“Encourage them to step out of their comfort zone, engaging them if they feel ready or not,” says Thompson.

Shendelman adds: “Embrace everything camp has to offer from going to arts and crafts to water skiing, depending on what the camp is offering in terms of activities.”

The right age?

There is no specific age where parents know immediately that their child is ready for overnight camp. Some overnight camps accommodate kids as young as five-years-old, while other camps wait for kids to turn eight years old before welcoming them.

One way camps are adapting to the needs of parents and kids when it comes to overnight experiences is providing families with more options. For example, hosting one-night, weekend camps or one-week camps to see if kids actually like the overnight experience before committing to more weeks and maybe more months.

“There are some camps that have a day camp component, along with an overnight. Those are specialized in terms of giving the younger ones an opportunity to experience the camp and the setting and be able to ultimately stay there,” says Shendelman, who adds that the idea of living with other campers and doing things like brushing their teeth, gives them a sense of independence that the shorter-term overnight experiences might not. “Kids learn those skills very quickly at overnight camp because parents aren’t over their shoulders.”

At the end of the day, camp is a really adventurous time in a child’s life. They will learn many skills and life experiences. It’s okay for them to feel nervous when going to overnight camp for the first time, but once they come out of their shell, they should want to go back year after year.

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