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Overnight camp for first-time campers

The recent 2012 camp enrollment kick-off got my partner and me thinking about signing up our kindergartener for an overnight camp session.

Cooper, who will turn 6 years old this summer, would be one of the youngest campers, which felt a little scary to me.

But after talking to a couple of camp directors and a child psychotherapist, I started to believe that Cooper, with his outgoing personality, his ability to make friends and settle into new environments fairly easily, and his aptitude to follow directions, was in a pretty good position to start his camp career.

Once I was sure that I was also in a good position — this is a pretty big deal for moms and dads, too — I asked Cooper what he thought about spending a few days and nights at a really cool camp without Mom and Dad.

His answer surprised me. While I had readily assumed that he’d be superexcited and jump at the chance to go on a cool, big kid adventure, he responded very seriously by saying, “No, Momma. That sounds cool, but I don’t think I’m ready.”

While our kindergartener has decided he is not ready for overnight camp, that doesn’t mean that yours isn’t. And, your kindergartener may be ready while an older child with a different personality could benefit from waiting another year.

“It’s so individual,” says Sanam Pejuhesh, a Boulder-based child psychotherapist. “If a child tends toward acting out or has separation issues, you might want to wait until they are older. But if your child is really self-sufficient, camp can be a really positive and empowering experience.”

How to determine if your child is ready

Children are all so different and ready to tackle different milestones at different times. Sometimes trying to determine readiness for big events, like overnight camp, can be challenging for parents. If you’re on the fence about your child’s readiness, answering a few questions posed by camp experts could help. Has your child asked to go? Has he had numerous sleepovers at a friend’s house and handled them well? Does he make friends easily? Does he like challenges and new experiences? Is he a good sleeper and free of nighttime anxieties? Does he follow directions well?

If you answered yes to most of these questions, chances are your child is ready for overnight camp — or at least ready to start having a conversation about the possibility. And, if the conversation gets everyone excited about overnight camp and you decide to go for it, here are some tips to help you prepare your little camper (and yourself) for his or her first overnight camp adventure.

Try a first-timers camp

Many camps offer mini camps — an overnight camp experience that lasts just a couple of days rather than a full week. Chris Coker, the president and CEO of the YMCA of Boulder Valley and father of three, explains that the shorter time structure of “first-timer camps” gives kids a good taste of overnight camp without a long-time commitment. The shorter session helps them to be successful, have fun, and prove to themselves that they can do it, he says.

Mini camps also tend to increase the staff-to-child ratio, and camps like YMCA Camp Santa Maria post pictures on their Facebook page every evening so parents can see what their kids are experiencing, which can ease parental anxiety.

Use the buddy system If you feel like your child is almost ready and he or she is just begging to try, Shawn Moriarty, camp director for Camp Santa Maria, suggests having a younger child attend the same camp during the same session as an older sibling. If your child is a first-born, Moriarty suggests teaming up with a friend.

“A shy or nervous camper can benefit a lot from attending camp with someone that they already know,” Moriarty says. “It’s a great security blanket for the younger kids.”

Take a tour

Many overnight camps run their mini camps in August, at the end of the camp season, which gives prospective first-time campers an opportunity to tour the camp and see what it’s like in full swing.

“Seeing the cabins and the dining hall and other kids having a great time is sometimes all that these kids and their parents need to get excited and feel comfortable,” Moriarty says. If you’re unable to take a tour, he suggests sitting down with your child and flipping through a camp brochure, touring its website, looking at the pictures and videos and reading the testimonials of seasoned campers.

Talk about homesickness

Almost all campers, regardless of age, experience some form of homesickness during their camp experience, Moriarty says. He suggests talking with your child about homesickness and what it might mean for them. What will they miss? What can they do or who might they talk to if they really miss home? Child psychotherapist Pejuhesh also stresses the importance of talking with your child about what to expect from camp and about the feelings that could come up. She explains that predictability is vital for young children, and suggests having a conversation about what could be great at camp, as well as what could go wrong. She also explains that a child’s ability to participate in this type of a dialogue is a great indicator for camp readiness.

Take some practice runs

In the weeks and months leading up to camp, schedule some overnight play dates for your child with his or her friends. Spending a successful night or two away from home before camp will help your child build the confidence needed to make it through a longer stretch.

Curb your own separation anxiety

“If Mom is anxious, the child will be anxious,” Pejuhesh says. Kids pick up on their parents’ anxieties, she says, suggesting that Mom and Dad separate their camp stress from their child’s. Moriarty agrees, and has learned through his experience as a camp director that sending a child away to camp for the first time can be just as hard — if not harder — for Mom and Dad.

“Acknowledge your feelings,” he suggests. “Acknowledge that I am feeling bad about leaving my kid at camp and that’s OK.”

Cooper made our decision an easy one by declaring his apprehension about leaving us for overnight camp, but next year we might be faced with making this big decision. Cooper’s dad and I loved camp as kids and want him to derive the same joy from crackling campfires, making new friends and learning cool new skills.

“Going away from home is a big step, and it helps kids to learn how to express who they are,” Moriarty says. “Once they’re ready, camp is a big step in helping them do that. But they need to be ready.”

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