Attending overnight camp can be an overwhelming, yet rewarding, experience.
For the camp experience to go off without a hitch, families should spend time preparing for sleepaway programs, according to Natalie Lane, camp and Pathways coordinator at the Girl Scouts of Northeast Ohio in Macedonia; Joe Mendes, director of Camp Roosevelt Firebird in Bowerstown, about 35 miles south of Canton; and Liz Stevens, director of Camp Walden in Cheboygan, Mich.
And while making sure you have the right things packed is important, it’s better to focus on emotionally preparing for time away from home.
“There is social-emotional preparation but also a logistical, practical preparation,” Mendes said. “The stuff preparation part is almost of zero importance. That part is pretty simple. My philosophy is less is more, since that is the point of camp – that you don’t need anything extra to be happy. But the more important part is the social-emotional part.”
Part of that emotional preparedness stems from ensuring overnight camp is not the first time children sleep away from home, Lane said.
“Caregivers can start by taking their camper out for overnight stays outside of the home as a family,” she said. “As she begins to become comfortable with spending the night away from home, she can practice her independent skills by spending the night at a friend’s house or staying the weekend with another family member. By stepping out of her comfort zone in increments, she’ll feel more comfortable at camp and more prepared emotionally to spend an entire week away from home.”
And even if they’ve practiced time away from home, there is always the possibility campers experience homesickness. Even the most prepared camper can deal with homesickness, but Stevens explained this is something first-time campers especially struggle with.
“It might be an hour, a day or a week,” she said. “But talking about those feelings, having a coping plan and assuring your child that camp staff is there to help are all important steps. There are videos parents and children can watch together where campers talk about how they overcame their homesickness that can reduce the intensity of homesickness. Prep4Camp is a series we recommend.”
But the emotional preparation process is not one-method-fits-all. Parents should be keen on tailoring these methods to their child’s needs and personality, Mendes explained.
“There are some sweeping generalizations I could make across the board, but it is more so about what each kid specifically needs,” he said. “It all depends on where each camper is coming from and where they are at, and that differs for parents too. Parents also need to be brave and secure enough to share, transparently, what is going on with their children to properly emotionally prepare them for the overnight camp experience. It is about being completely open.”
Emotionally preparing a child for camp isn’t something to be done a few days or even a few weeks before going away. Lane said there is merit in discussing the camp experience and beginning that journey as soon as possible, as it helps your camper get excited about the summer and gives them the confidence needed to excel. This also applies to the physical preparation, like packing, she added.
“Caregivers should encourage independence and build their camper’s confidence in herself by allowing her to explore staying overnight with friends or family,” Lane noted. “Campers should also pack their bag when preparing for camp (with a caregiver’s help). By packing her bag, campers will feel in control of her belongings, she will know where to find everything and she will feel more comfortable at camp.”
Preparing ahead of time also allows families to ease into the process, Stevens said, which makes all the difference.
“Time is your friend,” she said. “Easing into the preparations will be less stressful than trying to do everything the week before camp starts. Make yourself a camp calendar and set your deadlines for ordering supplies and labels, having those homesickness conversations, maybe even arranging a video-call introduction with another camper in the spring. A child coming to camp not knowing anyone will have different anxieties.”