Summer camps, those end-of-the-school-year rituals, have come a long way. They’re not the camps that moms and dads remember.
Sure, there are still crafts, archery, swimming and drawing, but today’s camps offer kids a plethora of activities and themes, from specialty camps such as fine arts, sports, scouting, academics or special needs, to traditional summer camp fun.
It’s the one time of the year when kids step away from the watchful eyes of their parents and are given the green light to participate in nonstop revelry.
And while summer camps give kids a fun outlet, some parents find respite from being in charge and endless searches for activities to keep their kids busy.
To help ensure your child gets the best experience out of summer camp — and to make sure you find peace of mind during the exodus — we spoke to a couple of local experts and researched national organizations that offer advice on making your child’s summer camp adventures, as well as yours, memorable.
WHY SUMMER CAMP?
According to the National Camp Association Inc., more than 6 million children attend summer camp each year, choosing from approximately 10,000 camps offered in the United States — 60 percent of which are sleep-away camps.
Tracing its origins back to the early 1900s, summer camp is a generations-old tradition and can be a period of growth for children, says pediatrician Randy Thornton of Jacksonville Pediatrics.
“Summer camps offer kids a chance to acquire new skills, gain self-reliance and self-confidence,” said Thornton. “They teach kids how to cooperate with others and, mostly, give them a chance to get away from the daily grind of school and have fun.”
Karla Repper, a clinical psychologist with Baptist Behavioral Health, agrees and adds that camps allow kids a chance to practice problem-solving techniques, learn leadership skills and think creatively during play.
“The emphasis of learning changes from an evaluative approach to learning to a naturalistic, intrinsic approach, good for the development of a positive sense of self,” said Repper.
QUESTIONS TO ASK
Before you choose a camp, make sure you have researched these issues.
• What is the staff-to-child ratio?
• What is the camp’s cancellation policy?
• What medical training or services are available onsite? Camps accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA) ensure health and safety standards.
• What is the camp’s emergency evacuation or emergency preparedness plan in case of natural disasters, such as hurricanes and flooding?
• Will campers be transported to another location for any reason? If so, what type of vehicle is used and what kind of insurance is carried? Who will be operating the vehicle, and what type of training do they have?
• What are the ages of camp counselors and staff? What is the background and length of service of the staff? Visit the camp while in session. Talk to the camp director and staff. Assess the facility and activities your child will participate in and ask other parents and children for their input.
• What percentage of campers return each year? If most kids are not coming back, there’s probably a reason.
• What is the schedule like — is it structured or one that emphasizes choice?
• What is the camp’s philosophy and attitude toward competitiveness?
• What is the focus of the camp — is it sports-oriented or arts-oriented?
• If it's an overnight camp, what are the sleeping arrangements, and toilet/shower facilities?
• What is the total cost of the camp, including extras?
WHAT TO PACK
Make sure your child has packed all the necessities for any situation at both day and overnight camps.
• A change of clothes — extra pair of shorts, T-shirt, shoes, socks, underwear
• Bug repellant
• Hat, scarves, bandana
• Towels, blankets, sheets, pillows/pillowcases
• Sleeping bag, laundry bag
• Toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, comb/brush, feminine products
• Flashlights, batteries
• Water bottle
DAY OR OVERNIGHT?
Determining which camp — day camp or overnight camp, which can range from one to seven weeks — may be as simple as just asking your child, said pediatrician Thornton, even though most kids show signs they are ready by age 8.
And, if your child has been to sleepovers at friends’ houses, Repper said, he or she most likely will be able to handle sleep-away camp.
Generally, overnight camps are coed, though some are all boys or all girls. Most day camps are coed, too. Regardless of whether you decide to send your child to day camp or overnight camp, both Thornton and Repper advise researching options well in advance of the registration deadline, so you won't feel pressured into making a hurried decision.
Day Camp Benefits
• Your child comes home at night, with camp usually starting in the morning and ending in the afternoon.
• Your child learns to be responsible for belongings, time and activities.
• The program often introduces new activities, like horseback riding, archery and canoeing.
• Day camp helps kids develop friendships and trust.
• Your child makes new friends and learns about diversity.
• Your child learns new skills – basket-weaving, jewelry-making.
• Your child enjoys the familiarity of scheduled events, competitions and physical activities.
Overnight Camp Benefits
• The camp teaches independence and responsibility without prodding or help from parents.
• Your child sees positive role models.
• Your child becomes part of a community to work and share together as a team.
• The camp provides day and evening activities.
• The program offers a chance to unplug and discover other means of communicating without electronic devices.
• The program focuses on specialized activities like sports, fine arts, performing arts or academics.
• Camp environment helps build bonds with new friends.
• The program teaches about making choices.
• Being away helps them appreciate you more.
HELPING PARENTS ADJUST
Some parents can’t wait for a little downtime, but some find it difficult to let go.
• Trust your child to adjust to the new camp environment.
• Have faith in the camp staff to help your child make the adjustment.
• Refrain from calling your child for the first few days.
• Who says letter-writing is a dead art? Write plenty of upbeat letters.
• Refrain from a massive clean-out or remodeling of your child’s room — dramatic change can cause anxiety.
• Start a project, such as cleaning out your closets or gardening.
• Have dinner with a friend.
• Take a road trip.
• Catch up on your summer reading.
CAMPS FOR KIDS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
Special needs children have many choices, such as camps for kids with chronic illnesses, mobility issues and even learning and behavioral disabilities.
• Check with your child’s physician to see if any health issues could be a problem.
• Make sure vaccinations are current.
• Discuss with camp staff medications for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, asthma or allergies.
• Inform the camp about any diet restrictions for your child.
BENEFITS OF CAMPS FOR SPECIAL NEEDS CHILDREN
• Gains greater independence.
• Improves self-confidence.
• Becomes more physically active.
• Discovers an appreciation of nature, animals and the environment.
• Interacts with other kids with the same disabilities, develops friendships and builds relationships.
• Develops and catches up on educational skills.
THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME
Attending camp for the first time can cause kids loads of anxiety about being separated from parents and being in an unfamiliar place.
• Encourage your child to be forthcoming in discussing fears and concerns about leaving home for an extended period.
• Reassure kids that you have confidence in them.
• Make them aware of realistic expectations – good and bad days and some boredom.
• Buy special stationery and stamps and encourage letter-writing.
• Pack a small item to remind them of home – a family picture, favorite stuffed animal, even a pillow.
• Make sure your kids keep their minds off home by staying busy and getting involved.
• Discuss camp activities, watch a comedy about summer camp and research camp websites.
• Send a care package, but check with the camp’s policies in advance.
• If possible, visit the campsite in advance.
PROTECTING FROM BULLIES
There’s no room for bullying, especially when your child is away at camp.
• Encourage your child to tell an adult if he or she feels unsafe or sees another child being bullied.
• Know the camp’s bully-prevention policy.
• If your child has been a victim of bullying, alert the camp staff in confidence that your child may be a target and to look for signs.
• Teach your child about maintaining composure, being assertive and learning positive behaviors.
• Most camps prohibit cellphones, but some do allow kids to have them. Teach your child about the potential of cyber bullying via cellphones and the Internet.
Sources: National Camp Association (summercamp.org), American Camp Association (acacamps.org), summercamphandbook.com, kidshealth.org, Randy Thornton of Jacksonville Pediatrics, Karla Repper of Baptist Behavioral Health, summer camp and trip resources