Over 14 million kids go to camp every year, according to the American Camping Association (ACA). A child’s first summer camp experience will help them make new friends, learn to work with others, live in the moment and become more independent. But not every kid is excited to explore the great outdoors, especially if they’ve never left home before. Here are five ways to help your kid get over homesickness and first-day jitters so they can get the most out of their camp session.
1. Set a Good Example
Your child looks to you to see how to react to new situations. The ACA suggests parents acknowledge they’ll miss their child, but keep the conversation positive by reminding a young camper they’ll have a great experience. If your kid’s headed to overnight camp for the first time, stay strong — try to save the tears for the ride home. The more a child sees their parent excited for them, the more comfortable they’ll be about this new adventure.
The same applies for your time apart. Tom Madeyski, District Executive for Overnight Camping with the YMCA of San Diego County tells Parentology,”“Send encouraging, supportive letters (or emails) to your child while at camp. Stay away from the ‘I miss you terribly’ statements and focus on positivity. Things like ‘I’m confident you’re doing great; I am so proud of you’ go a long way with the campers, and help reinforce the value of being independent.”
2. Assess Readiness
Some camps have age limits, but the best person to decide if your child is ready or not is you. Observe how your kid reacts to sleepovers and babysitters. If they really struggle to leave home or be without their parents, it may be too early for overnight camp. Day camp is a great and affordable option for kids of all ages who prefer a stable schedule, but still want to sleep at home. Make sure to discuss with your child what their expectations are from camp, so you can get a better sense of where they would have the most fun.
3. Pick The Best Summer Camp Fit
There are so many different summer camps, it can be hard to decide which one is right for your kid. The ACA recommends day camp for children under seven, as they might not easily adjust to being away from home overnight. Once your camper is ready to “sleep-away,” discuss location with your family. Factor in travel costs, and the impact distance might have on your kid’s homesickness.
Also consider session length: camps can range from five days to the entire summer. Finally, think about the type of camp that best fits your child, especially if they have specialty skills or special needs. There are camps tailored to almost every hobby, sport, and disability, so do some research to find one that will be the most comfortable and beneficial.
4. Prepare for Homesickness
83% of campers from age 8 to 16 report at least one bout of homesickness, according to Phillips Exeter Academy psychologist Dr. Christopher Thurber. He finds that homesickness is the norm for kids, not the exception. It can be hard for families to separate, even for a few weeks, but learning independence is crucial for kids’ growth.
Thurber and the ACA recommend that parents prepare by encouraging sleepovers throughout the school year, and role-playing anticipated situations like using a flashlight to find the bathroom. The more your child is involved in the planning and decision-making process for camp, the more comfortable they will feel once they arrive.
When homesickness does strike, be patient and prepared. Many overnight camps have a no-phone-calls policy to keep campers focused on their experience and enjoying the moment. If this is the case, play by the rules. Send a letter or small care package ahead of time so it arrives when they do; the first few days are usually the hardest.
If a “rescue call” does come from your kid, stay calm, remind them you love them, and put the time frame into perspective. If the call is from camp directors, listen to their recommendations — they’ve dealt with this kind of thing for years. In most cases, kids get over homesickness, but if yours isn’t eating or sleeping they may need to return home early.
If you’re the one feeling pangs and worrying about your child, remember this sage advice from Madeyski, “Once the child is at camp, ‘no news is good news.’ Although you might worry as a parent, camp life is very busy. Campers are focused on one activity after another. Camp directors are experienced in handling minor behavior or homesickness issues, and will certainly get in touch if a larger issue arises. But that’s typically not the case.”
5. Trust Your Camp
Camps are basically professional babysitting operations. Madeyski says, ” “With overnight camps, the ratio of adult supervisors to children is likely the highest you’ll ever see. The American Camp Association suggests a 1:10 ratio of staff to campers, and many camps exceed that. It’s also important to note that contrary to Hollywood movie characterizations, supervision is continual. Children are never left unsupervised.”
Camp directors and counselors have years of experience with kids, and know what they need to have a fun, fulfilling summer. “One of the most prominent benefits of camps is the example and influence of the counselors,” Madeyski says. “At the YMCA of San Diego County, our counselors are largely college students. They’re mature enough to supervise, but in the eyes of children, young enough to be cool. The example they set is powerful in teaching positive values to our campers.”
It’s not easy to give up supervision for an extended period of time, but your child will benefit from this opportunity for independence, friendship, and discovery. “Get ready from some fun stories from camp,” Madeyski says. “Parents tell us their child will sleep in the car the whole way home, but once rested, they have much to tell.”
He encourages asking for details. “Ask them targeted questions about favorite activity, most memorable moment. Have them describe their counselors, the food, their cabin and cabin group, friends they’ve made, something new they learned,” Madeyski says. “In the days following camp, expect numerous memories to continuously come out. Camp is truly a life-changing time.”
Indeed, kids come home from camp more confident and self-sufficient than ever before, and your entire family will gain trust and strength after a healthy separation.