Summer camp may be one of the few experiences children have that take them back to nature and a simpler way of life, away from cell phones, Game Boys and Webkinz.
Although there are many different residential camps offering numerous activities, sleepaway camps also present the milestone of sleeping away from home and parents for several days. Whether your child is prepared for that level of independence is one of the major factors in deciding whether he or she is ready for a residential camp.
The Right Fit
The most practical place to begin your search for the best camp for your child is the American Camp Association’s (ACA) Web site: www.campparent.org. It offers a searchable database of all camps that receive the organization’s accreditation.
“The site is dedicated to parents and guardians of children who attend camp, gives information about the different types that are available, and helps you find the right one for your child,” says Judy Talbot, section president for the ACA’s Upstate NY division. “We are also happy to mail printed materials with information.” (Contact the ACA office at 399-0860.) Talbot also recommends that, once you’ve made a selection, you contact the camp and speak with the camp’s director, who can answer specific questions and help you determine if it is a good fit.
Is My Child Ready?
First you have to determine if your child can spend days or weeks without family members or familiar faces around.
Mike Preston, camp director at Lourdes Camp in Skaneateles on Skaneateles Lake at Ten Mile Point, has been on the job for 28 years. Lourdes is an ecumenical camp which operates under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Syracuse. A child is often ready for a residential camp around age 9 or 10, he says. “If your child has spent some time at Grandma and Grandpa’s, or has slept over at a friend’s house and didn’t have a problem, that’s always a good thing.”
If a child has expressed an interest in going to camp, that’s another indication of readiness. Preston adds, “If it’s their first time, they might consider asking a friend to go along so they can bunk together.” Most camps will honor such requests.
Baldwinsville mother Beth Soeder last summer sent her two children to the same camp she attended as a child, Vanderkamp, an ecumenical camp in Cleveland, N.Y., run by a joint project of the Upstate New York Synod of the Lutheran Church and Cayuga-Syracuse and Utica Presbyterian Churches, and located in Cleveland, N.Y. It was the first time her daughter, then age 10, had slept away from home for an entire week by herself. Her son, then 8 years old, took advantage of the camp’s two-day trial program to see if he was ready for a week away.
“My daughter loved it and at the end of the week wanted to go back again,” says Soeder. “My son enjoyed his two days there, and was very torn about what to do, but ultimately he came home at the end of the trial program. He does want to try next time for the whole week.”
Soeder thinks that it was his age that made him hesitant to stay. She anticipates that this summer, when he’s 9, he’ll be ready to stay the entire week along with his sister.
Patrice Robinson’s daughter, also 10 years old at the time, had a different experience. Robinson chose Camp Talooli, located in Pennellville, about 25 miles north of Syracuse. The camp, operated by Camp Fire USA, is set in the woods surrounding a private lake.
“She was very excited to go, and attended the same camp as three other friends, but when she got there, she began to feel that she was not ready to stay overnight,” says Robinson, who lives in Baldwinsville. In the end, “one other friend left with her, and two stayed.”
Although her daughter had been
on sleepovers with friends, and had stayed overnight with family members alone, Robinson says, “It was her first experience for an extended stay in a new environment.”
The camp kept in touch with Robinson and let her know what was going on with her daughter, which she appreciated. “They tried to calm her fears, but when the director felt that the situation would not improve, we made the decision together to go ahead and pick her up,” she says. “We wanted her to feel capable of being able to stay overnight, but I didn’t want my child to be miserable and not be able to sleep at night for an entire week. It was a tough decision.”Getting Kids Ready
Soeder began to prepare her son and daughter for their camp experience by getting out photos from her own camp days, pointing out the photos taken when getting dropped off, in which she appeared uncertain and shy. Then Soeder contrasted them with photos taken at the end of the week, when she posed happily with new friends she had made and showed off her favorite spots at camp.
“They already knew the camp songs they still sing at that camp,” she says, “because I’ve taught them to my kids over the years. They’ve grown up hearing my stories.”
Camp director Preston says it is important for the parent to be positive about the child going away. “If the parent says, ‘Well, I’m really going to miss you, Jenny,’ then that’s not good,” he explains. One way to prepare your child for a week on his or her own is to visit a facility’s open house event and talk with the director. “You’re leaving your child for a week in the care of the director and their staff, so you want to make sure you’re comfortable with them,” Preston says.
Getting Parents Ready
Occasionally, says Preston, a parent poses the biggest obstacle to their child’s success at camp. Last year, one camper who wasn’t sure if she could last the week was fine as soon as her mother left. Sending cards, letters, and small care packages can help parents deal with some of their own anxieties and fears.
Soeder didn’t worry about her kids going away to camp or making friends once they got there. “I think that you have your friends for 12 months out of the year, and for this one week, you could go experience immersing yourself in a situation where you have to make new friends,” she says. “I think it was a beneficial thing for both my kids to do.”
“Every child should experience sleepover camp at least once in their life,” says Preston. “With instant messaging, cell phones and computers, it’s nice to go back to the way it was years ago.”
With the ban on electronic devices at most camps, Soeder says she didn’t know if her son was going to be able to make it for three days and two nights without his Game Boy. “It was wonderful; he didn’t even miss it,” she said.
Whether she attends day camp or sleepaway camp, your child will emerge from the experience with new discoveries, new friends, and a fresh understanding of her own capabilities and interests.
“In our case, even the not-so-positive experience (of our daughter coming home early), turned out to be a good learning experience,” Robinson says. “In the end, it was about her and we had to do what was right for her.”Robinson’s advice for parents of potential campers: Expect the unexpected!
MICHAEL DAVIS PHOTOS