The kids are out of school. But we’re not worried; we’ve got summer camp! A regular routine with educational activities, new friends and plenty of outside time are just around the corner.
But if you’ve signed up your crew for a week or two—or four—away for the first time or have kids who claim last year’s camps were just awful, we understand if you’re feeling stressed. To help, we talked with Noah Gallagher, director of the Jewish Community Center’s Ranch Camp, about how to help children have a great time away and the importantance of preparing the whole family for the change in schedule.
“Kids are going from an environment where academics are the main focus to an environment where physical activity and social interaction are the main focus,” Gallagher says. “Whether it’s day camp or overnight camp, preparing a child for that kind of transition is critical to the child’s success.”
How can you prepare younger verses older kids?
“Interestingly, I think younger kids have an easier time with the transition, particularly when it comes to overnight camp. They seem to be more adaptable and also, as they get older, there are fewer kids who are coming for the first time. And I think that’s really what we’re talking about: kids leaving for the first time for residential overnight camp.
“The difference, I would say, is that for younger kids it’s good to have familiarity with the place and with someone who is going to be at the camp. Attend events if the camp offers them for families and for kids. If you’re sending your kid to an overnight camp that’s not close by, you can ask the year-round camp staff to connect you with summer staff and campers in your area.
“Those social connections are even more critical with older kids. Really, really work with the camp to find another camper in the child’s bunk they can connect with before. It’s harder for kids when they get older to make those social connections, but what I’ve found true across camps is that there are always kids who really want to welcome the new kid and really want to make sure the new kid has the best possible experience, and love camp because they love the camp so much. Ask the year-round camp staff, the director or the assistant director who that kid or who those kids are.
“For younger kids, and for parents, I think it’s also comforting to see the camp if you can get a tour before summer, which isn’t always possible. But if you can get a tour before the summer, or during the summer prior while camp is in session, definitely take advantage of that opportunity. It’ll make everyone feel a lot better.”
Is there anything parents should do to prepare themselves for not having their kids around for a while?
“Prepare yourself to enjoy the time! It can actually be really difficult for parents: 99 percent of the time—and I’ve been doing this for 20 years—the campers get over it within a few days but I still have camper sick parents after the first week.”
When are kids ready to go to camp?
“When parents say, ‘My child’s not ready,’ they often mean ‘I’m not ready.’ And, as a parent, I get that. But I’ll say that a kid is ready for overnight camp when they can make it through a sleepover. If they are comfortable sleeping at a friend’s house without calling home, they are probably just fine for a week, two weeks or even four at an overnight camp. If they haven’t been to overnight camp after entering sixth or seventh grade, it gets really difficult. There’s, from my perspective, a window of readiness. And that’s usually between entering second grade at the very earliest to entering fifth grade. Most first-time campers across the country are coming in at entering fourth grade.”
How can parents spot a good summer camp?
“I believe there’s a camp for every kid, and I believe that most camps are good camps objectively. The camp that’s going to be the best camp for your kid is going to be pretty subjective. You have to look at what they offer: Does the program fit your child’s needs? At the end of the day, the most important thing is not the bells and whistles. It’s not the big lake with the blob, the water skiing, the 50-foot climbing tower or the 25 sports fields. It’s the connections kids make with each other and with the staff.
“The best way to find out if a camp is right for your child is to talk to families that have been sending kids to that camp and find out how they feel about their experience. You can watch a thousand videos and see a thousand camps, but it won’t mean as much as connecting with the families that have had a relationship with the camp and with the camp directors for a period of time.”
Do you recommend that kids try out different camps within one summer break?
“I say try to stick with one. I think bouncing around can be tough.”
Did you go to summer camp when you were growing up?
“I did. I went to day camp starting when I was 5 years old and overnight camp as soon as I was 9 years old. I met my wife at overnight camp. It’s been a really important part of my life.”
What are your favorite summer camp activities?
“I love camp fires and a great evening program. I think the camp talent show has to be the one that’s, for me, the most emotionally valuable. I’m never more inspired than when I see a kid on stage have the total attention of the 200-300 kids and staff in the room, and know that this is a kid who would never ever, ever do anything like this at home. That’s the kind of environment that camps provide. Kids can really be who they are, and that’s never more pure than on a talent show stage.”
Is there anything else about summer camp parents should know?
“I think there are things that parents should avoid doing that would really make it hard for kids to enjoy camp and put kids at a disadvantage. There are also a few things they definitely should do.
- When you send your child to an overnight camp and tell them they can come home whenever they want, it’s an incentive to be miserable. To those kids who have that promise in their pocket, they work real hard—real hard—to be miserable because they know if they can hold out for three whole days, maybe they get to go home. Encouraging kids to stick it out is critical to the experience.
- Similarly, please write kids real letters. You can write emails, but real letters are so meaningful and it’s the only time kids are possibly going to get real letters in their life. The letters should be positive. I’ll give an example: letters that say, “I know you’re having a fun, amazing time at camp and we’re so proud of you,” are better than “We miss you, we’re so sad without you, we can’t wait for you to come home.” Really encourage and emphasize that all the fun is where the child is in that moment and not where they aren’t with their parents.
- Tell the camp everything about your child. Parents hesitate to fill out the camp questionnaires because they see it as some sort of screening and, sometimes, withhold information about their child that could be key to their success, like a behavioral issue. It will come up over the summer, I promise. And the more you share about it the more the camp is equipped to manage it, and the more likely you are to get a call that says, “Hey, you mentioned this thing in the parent questionnaire. It’s come up and we’d really like to work with you to make your child’s experience better.”
- Parents should also know that they are going to get a letter that’s not going to be pleasant. The child is going to say that they are miserable and having a terrible time. There might even be a drop with a circle around it with an arrow pointing to the words, “My tear.” Every summer at least one parent gets that letter. Parents should recognize that when kids sit down to write letters, they’ve probably been told it’s letter writing time. That letter is a snapshot of that child in that moment. Don’t be disappointed if there’s a lack of content either. Be happy that your child is totally immersed in the camp environment. But if they do get that letter that sounds like the child is having a rough go, it’s probably not a reflection of their day-to-day, hour-to-hour experience.
- Don’t bribe your child to enjoy camp. I’ll have kids come and say, “If I get through camp without a call from the camp director, my mom is going to buy me that video game or that toy or a bike.” Let camp be its own reward, which is the confidence, independence and close friends they get with the experience.
- Send a letter before camp starts so there’s something waiting for them on the first day from you. It’ll make you feel better as a parent to know that’s waiting for them and your child will really appreciate it.
- Finally, read the parent guide; all the technical stuff is in there. Most camps pack that guide with every question you could possibly have, and 99 percent of the phone calls we get with questions about medication or transportation or whatever it is, the answer is in there. Those are very thorough and just great resources for parents.”