Take time to figure out right camp for your child

lpemberton@theolympian.comApril 14, 2013 

Day camp or overnight camp? Horseback riding or computer programming?

Families have so many options for summer camps; choosing the right one for your child can be overwhelming.

Last fall, I attended an overnight Cub Scout Mom & Me program with our oldest son at Camp Thunderbird near Summit Lake west of Olympia.

The weekend was filled with silly songs and skits, classic camp crafts and some outdoor adventures, including rock wall climbing and archery. We had a great time.

But the experience also confirmed a hunch: Our 8-year-old is not quite ready for an overnight camp, at least not on his own.

I shouldn’t have been surprised — he gets homesick at grandma’s house by about 10 p.m. We’ve decided to sign him up for some day camps this summer that will give him outdoor experience and the comforts of home at night. We also plan to explore more family camp options.

I recently caught up with Chelsea Hendrikx, a spokeswoman for the American Camp Association’s regional office, to get her expert advice on selecting camps for kids and dealing with separation issues.

Here are excerpts of our conversation.

Question: How do you know your child is ready for an overnight camp?

Answer: The best way to go about deciding whether your child is ready for camp is to make the decision with them. Talk with them, and find out what they’re interested in and if there’s a camp that correlates with that. Working with them in the decision will help you know if they’re ready. ... Oftentimes the child is more ready than the parent.

Other determiners: Have they spent the night successfully at a friend’s house or a grandparent’s house? Typically, a lot of camps offer overnight mini camps — they might be one or two nights — for children in about first grade. They’re kind of a starting point to get them used to camp.

It is good to push that comfort zone because they might be nervous about going to camp, but that’s OK.

Q: What are the benefits of camp?

A: There are so many. From an educational standpoint, summer camp is basically an extension of the classroom, to have hands-on experience and experiences they can’t have at school.

The skills they’re gaining at camp can be used at school and at home for the rest of their lives. They’re going to explore and learn and connect with nature and be outside. ...

It’s really about developing the whole child, not just one piece of them.

Q: What are some of the trends for summer camps?

A: Camps are so constantly evolving. ... There are a lot of science, math and technology camps popping up now. Some camps even offer robotics programs. ...

Take any interest that your child has, and there’s going to be a camp that meets that interest.

Q: What can a parent do to help a child deal with homesickness?

A: Preparing for camp before you go is the first place to start. Go through a day at camp at home, rehearsing the bedtime routine at home. Talk through your child’s fears.

Also, it’s really important for parents to be positive about the experience. ... Let them know you’re excited, and you know they’re going to have a great time when they get there.

When they’re at camp, send letters. Most camps will let you send email.

Be really positive in those letters. You could say, “I hope you’re having a great time. We’re going to be excited to see you.”

Don’t tell them you’ll pick them up. If they know they have that out, it’s going to be a lot harder to be in the moment (and get them to stay at the camp).

Q: Do you have any advice on how families can afford camp?

A: Many camps offer scholarships. It’s always worth asking.

Picking a camp that’s close to home can make it more affordable because you’re not traveling as far.

As you gear up for camp, you don’t need to have the biggest and best. You can buy a lot of things, including hiking boots, secondhand.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: Talk to camp directors and camp staff, and ask them any questions you have.

Consider choosing a camp that is accredited by the American Camp Association. It covers regulations such as camper-staff ratio, registered nurses on site, kitchen safety rules, staff training and a lot of policies and procedures in terms of how to deal with intruders and what to do during emergency situations.

For more tips and to search a database of ACA-accredited camps, go to campparents.org.

Lisa Pemberton is one busy mama, raising three children while working as a reporter at The Olympian. Reach her at lpemberton@theolympian.com

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