A camp experience is a rewarding and self-esteem building experience for middle childhood aged kids. Camp gives children opportunities to make new friends and provides them exposure to additional positive adult role models and new peers who serve to further develop children's social skills. Camps provide a rich and varied learning experience by exposing children to new experiences and activities, and teaching them new skills. Camp also provides parents an alternative to child care during children's summer (and possibly spring and winter) school breaks. Lastly, camp is fun!
Below, we describe how parents can evaluate and select a camp for their children, and then prepare children for a successful camp experience. Our hope is that this information will be valuable to parents who are new to the camp process.
Because there are many different kinds of camps available, finding the best camp to send particular children to is not a simple task. First parents must decide between day camps and overnight camp formats. Next, parents need to decide what type of camp to select including sports camps, outdoor camps, church camps, and even educational, enrichment camps. Once that is decided, then parents will need to select a specific camp. They will need to consider the structure of the camp, accreditation, staffing, facilities, and supports. Following this, they must check availability and then register and pay, assist their child to emotionally prepare for the camp experience, and finally, help their little camper pack the items that are necessary to ensure their safety and comfort. We review important elements of this decision process in the section below so as to aid parents in their selection. Readers who are not interested in reading about the camp selection and preparation process should consider jumping back to our section on Finding Balance.
Day Camp vs. Overnight/Sleep-away Camp
The first major choice parents need to consider in selecting a camp is whether to look at day camp or an overnight or "sleep-away" camp. In a day camp, the camp experience begins and ends at a set time each day, and the campers return home at night, and on the weekends. At day camps children are normally fed lunch and perhaps another snack or meal, depending upon the camp's hours. However, breakfast and supper are not typically included. In contrast to day camp, children stay at overnight camp for a predetermined number of days or weeks, without returning home.
Both day camps and overnight camps allow children to make new friendships, build social skills, and offer similar camp lessons and experiences. Both camp types can cater to children's different and unique interests and special needs. However, there are different costs and benefits associated with each type of camp:
- Expense. Because overnight camps are housing and feeding children around the clock, and need to provide trained staff to constantly supervise the children, they tend to be more expensive than day camps.
- Distance. Day camps tend to be located closer to home than overnight camps, as children have to be shuttled back and forth every day. In contrast, overnight camps can be located anywhere: across town, across the state, or across the country. Particularly when children live in an urban environment, their participation at an overnight camp may be their best opportunity to spend an extended period of time in a country or wilderness setting.
- Independence. Overnight camps require children be a bit more independent, as they will need to be able to complete their daily care on their own, such as bathing, personal hygiene, and dressing. Children attending overnight camp need to be mature enough to be away from the familiar and comfortable objects, surroundings, and people from home for several days or weeks at a time. Some children just aren't ready for that yet.
Parents should consider both the financial cost and the emotional maturity and independence level of their children when deciding between a day and overnight camp. Parents need to ask about, and to talk about, what their kid's wishes and preferences are regarding camp. Also, parents should consider how they feel about their children going away for weeks to overnight camp, versus seeing them on a daily basis, and the reasonableness of those feelings. It is best if both parents and children like the idea of a particular type of camp, but there may be cases when it is best that parents push a child who is somewhat hesitant, or when it is best that parents slow things down and pay attention to their own sense that children are not yet ready despite children's enthusiasm.
Finally, families also need to consider any huge transitions or life changes that may complicate children's away-from-home camp experience. If a new baby, important family wedding, or other significant event is scheduled about the same time of an overnight camp, it may not be possible or desirable to send children to camp. Children's homesickness, (a common initial issue in overnight camp environments) could become greatly magnified if they think they're missing out on something big back home. Likewise, if the family is going through a difficult transition such as a recent divorce or separation, or an elder's difficult medical situation, it may be too difficult a time to send a youth to extended, overnight camp.