Sleep Away Camp? Kum-Bah-YEAH!

Family, Featured Article, Travel

Winter may still be in full swing, but it’s not too soon to start thinking about s’mores, sleeping bags and all things camp. If you’re considering sleep-away camp for your youngster for the first time, here’s what you need to know.

What Are the Benefits of Sleep-Away Camp?

Besides affording kids the chance to try ziplining, archery and other cool stuff, camp helps kids to develop valuable life skills, including leadership, independence, self-control and grit, says Don Whipple, director of Mountain Camp, located in eastern California near Lake Tahoe.

Tom Holland, a spokesperson for the American Camp Association and a former educator and camp director, says kids learn important lessons about community-building and friendship by meeting new people, living together in a cabin or other bunk and sharing a bathroom.

Camp is a perfect place for kids to take what Whipple calls “healthy risks,” where they can try new things in a positive, encouraging environment that’s different from home and school. “We think this growth is really critical, absent from that constant evaluation that maybe they get at school and at home,” Whipple says. “Real self-esteem comes from doing something that you can really take credit for yourself. That’s one of the things camp is better at than almost anything.”

Is My Kid Ready?

Just because one child is ready for sleep-away camp at age 7 doesn’t mean another kid will be, so how can parents determine if their kid is camp-ready?

Both Whipple and Holland say that kids should ideally have experience spending one or more nights away from home beforehand, such as at a sleepover at a friend’s house or a weekend trip with grandparents. Kids should also have basic self-care down pat, including the ability to brush their own teeth and shower on their own.

Attending a day camp or family camp before their first go at sleep-away camp is also good practice, says Whipple, particularly if it’s at the same facility. Pittsburgh mom Jaclyn Macedonia and her 7-year-old daughter went together to a family camp for a few summers, where they met the camp director and got familiar with the facilities and activities. Last summer, Macedonia’s daughter attended the same camp’s four-day overnight mini-camp for 6-year-olds, and this summer, she’ll do a full week solo.

Sharon Silberg, of Chicago, had a similar experience. Her sons, ages 6 and 8, will attend what’s called “Taste of Camp” for five days and four nights to introduce them to the full camp, which campers can attend for two, four or eight weeks. Her older son attended with a friend last year, but the siblings will go together this summer.

Whipple says sending a child to camp with a sibling or friend has both benefits and drawbacks. A nervous camper will undoubtedly feel reassured knowing another child, and many camps offer discounts when siblings attend together. But parents should encourage children to branch out from that safety net and make their own friends and have their own camp experiences. Parents can ask camp directors to house siblings in separate cabins to foster some independence. When friends plan to go together, Whipple urges both sets of parents to talk beforehand to make everyone’s goals and expectations clear.

How Do We Choose a Camp?

Parents typically start by determining a location, type of camp (a specialized sports camp versus a traditional outdoorsy camp, for example) and a price range. But don’t let price be the primary factor, Holland says: Many camps offer financial aid or scholarships.

Be sure to solicit lots of input from your camper. What type of experience does your son or daughter want? What level of structure suits his or her personality and maturity level? Getting buy-in from campers is crucial. “If parents are just driving the cause, that could affect the positive outcomes of a child’s camp experience,” Holland says. “The best experiences are felt by campers that had an active choice when choosing a program.”

Parental recommendations are also critical, say Whipple and Holland. If you don’t know other parents, ask a camp director to put you in touch with one or two. Likewise, schedule a visit or phone call with the camp director to ask key questions, including:

  • Is the camp accredited by the ACA? If not, why not? Whipple says many camps that are affiliated with large religious organizations or universities, for example, may not be because they have their own standards.
  • What does the daily schedule look like?
  • How much structure versus freedom to choose activities are kids afforded?
  • What will my child eat? Can the camp handle food allergies?
  • How will my child be kept safe when participating in camp activities? What happens in the event of an emergency?
  • How can I communicate with the camp and with my child? Will I be sent photos or updates?
  • What is the camp’s philosophy and atmosphere?
  • What is the staff-camper ratio? While it’s up to parents’ comfort level, the ACA recommends a staff-camper ratio of 1:5 for overnight campers age 5 or younger; 1:6 for ages 6 to 8; 1:8 for ages 9 to 14; and 1:10 for ages 15 to 18.
  • What are the staff qualifications, background and reference checks, and training like? How many are returning staffers?

While the activities offered by a camp are both important and attractive, what matters more is the quality of the staff. “Campers might be water-skiing for six minutes,” Whipple says, “ but they’re going to be with that counselor for an hour and a half talking about what it means to persevere, to try, to encourage your friends who aren’t having as much success. All of those things happening around the activity are much more important.”

To help parents, the ACA offers a list of its accredited camps and other resources on Also, many communities host camp fairs in the winter and early spring, where families can pick up brochures and talk to camp directors and staff in person.

We’ve Picked a Camp. Now What?

First-time campers and parents will inevitably feel both excitement and apprehension, but preparing for the experience together is the key to success, say Whipple and Holland. Discuss children’s goals for camp: What activities do they want to try? What do they hope to learn?

Review the packing list, shop for provisions and pack the suitcase together. Be sure to include a few personal items, such as a stuffed animal or family photos, to make their bunk feel more like home and to help ward off homesickness.

Most campers will feel some degree of homesickness, says Whipple, and it helps to talk about it ahead of time. Let your child know that homesickness is not only normal but very, very common. But, he adds, do not tell your child he can come home early if he feels homesick. “If you make that sort of deal, it makes it very difficult for kids to work through their homesickness,” he says. “They don’t try hard enough to work through it.”

Similarly, keep your correspondence with your camper light and newsy. “Don’t write about how much you’re missing the child or how much the dog misses them,” Whipple says. “Focus on the things the kids are doing at camp and on supporting them and wishing them a great time.” Holland encourages parents to pack pre-stamped postcards or envelopes so kids can write home easily.

Lastly, in those months, weeks and days leading up to camp, focus on the fun. “It’s a great moment in the life of a child to have the opportunity to have such an adventure and to try so many new things,” Holland says. “Embrace that opportunity.”

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