Top Ten Things You Can Do to Prepare Your Child(ren) for Summer Camp (And No, One of Those Things Is Not a Sleepover)
With flowers blooming and the temperature warming, many parents want to know what they should do to help prepare their child(ren) for sleep away camp this summer. There are many things that parents can do to help prepare your child for a most successful summer and an easy adjustment to sleepaway camp. Feel free to read the entire list and/or focus on the things that are bigger concerns for your child(ren), but here are a few helpful tools…
Let’s begin with the myth that they “have to have a successful sleepover” to be ready for camp. Think back to sleepovers as a child. Sleepovers tend to be one-night experiences where you sleep at a friend’s house. Typically, you are sleeping on a trundle bed or in a sleeping bag in your friend’s room. Everything sounds and feels different than home, especially in the dark. If you get nervous or want to find an adult you had to walk through a house in the dark that you were not as familiar with as home, and possibly wake up your friend’s parent (who you may not know as well as you know your friend). You don’t have time to adjust to the situation because by morning, it’s over. Sleepovers can be fun and wonderful, but they can feel unfamiliar and uncomfortable too. On the other hand, when you go to camp, you are sleeping on YOUR bed, with your sheets and your blanket, in a room surrounded by your camp friends. Not to mention, the adults – your counselors – are in the room with you. You also have the advantage of time. The first night or two of camp may seem unfamiliar and a little scary, but you get used to it. It is your summer home and very quickly feels like that. The take home message is that sleepaway camp is very often easier for children than sleepovers, so if your child(ren) does not love sleepovers, do not panic.
While there is the usual list of camp forms, doctor’s appointments, packing list purchases, and pre-camp events that are necessary to prep before your child(ren) goes off to camp, I want to talk about the skills and information that you can prep your child(ren) with to help them be set up for the smoothest transition to camp as possible. In no particular order, here are the Top Ten Things Parents Can Do to Prepare Your Child(ren) for Summer Camp:
1. Bedtime Routine – If your child falls asleep in your bed, crawls into your bed if they wake up early, or you stay in their room until they fall asleep, it’s important to wean them off these routines now. If this is the only way your child knows how to fall asleep or stay asleep, they will have a much harder time adjusting to camp when you, and the comfort of your bed, are not there. It is, of course, wonderful to have a special bedtime routine between you and your child (i.e. reading books or tucking them in or having a special saying between you and them before bed) but you should talk to your child about what it is going to be like when they are at camp and their bedtime routine is going to look and feel different. Staff will certainly help create a bedtime routine for the bunk and say goodnight to each camper, but helping your child understand that the bedtime routine they have at camp is going to be different than the bedtime routine they have at home, is important. Help your child “try on” different bedtime routines at home to help them practice for camp. Talk to them about something they can do (read a book, listen to music, etc…), or say to themselves (my parent(s) love me and know I’m having fun at camp. At camp that reminds them that you do not need to be there to be sending them love and that you know they are safe and happy falling asleep at camp. (*see number 10)
2. Meal Times and Eating – Understandably, at home children are often able to be served foods you know they like and / or ask for foods that can be made individually for them. At camp, children need to be able to be more curious about food and food options (and yes, they can do this even as picky eaters). Talk to your child(ren) about the questions they can ask or things they can do if they do not like the main meal that is served. Encourage your child to take a bite or two of new meals at camp. Sometimes a meal they do not like at home is made differently at camp and they might like it. Help them feel comfortable asking a counselor to show them where to find the other options (i.e the fruit, the salad bar, the Sunbutter and jelly, the pasta bar, the cereal, etc…). Talk to them about the importance of finding things they like that “help give them more energy” than just croutons or a piece of bread. The staff will help the campers learn what and where all the many options are for a large variety of foods at each meal, but it is important for your child to practice being an advocate for themselves to find food they like as opposed to them having the luxury of being more passive at meals at home. (*see number 10)
3. Laundry, Clothing, and Making the Bed – At home, many children do not sort their own laundry, pick out their own clothes, or make their own bed (including changing the sheets, not just pulling up the blankets). These are all tasks that campers will do at camp. Of course, the staff are there to help them with these tasks, but if your child goes to camp with a better understanding of these tasks they will feel more confident and be better prepared to accomplish them. Whether it’s a child who does not see the stain on the shirt as an issue and doesn’t think to wash it because it’s their favorite shirt, or, it’s the child that thinks, anytime they change clothes, the clothes should go in the laundry (even if they got dressed, had one activity, then had swim and changed after swim, so they put on an entirely new outfit and put the one they wore for three hours in the laundry), children need help understanding when clothes should / need to be put in their laundry bag or not. If you pick out your child’s clothing for them every day, it is important to let them practice picking out their own clothes. The fashion sense or ability to match clothing is irrelevant but make sure your child knows how to properly dress for comfort and the weather. Remind them to always pick out socks to wear with sneakers or if it’s a chilly evening, wear a sweatshirt over their t-shirt. Again, staff will certainly help with reminders at camp, but picking out clothes for themselves is a good task to practice at home. While many children are asked to “make their bed” at home, most children do not change their own sheets. Before camp, talk to your children about the difference between a fitted and flat sheet, why pillows need pillow cases on them, and help them practice making a bed from scratch. If a child can practice what to do at home, they will feel more confident and understand the task better at camp. (*see number 10)
4. Personal Hygiene – If your child only takes baths at home, encourage them to practice taking a shower and how to rinse out all the shampoo and conditioner themselves. If your child has never put on their own sunscreen, have them practice putting on sunscreen in front of you. If someone always helps your child tie their shoes, help them learn to tie their own. If someone always helps your child put their hair in a ponytail, help them practice doing one themselves, even if it’s not “as good” as they usually like. If your child is at the stage where a sweaty, hot, active day makes wearing deodorant a necessity, talk to them about applying deodorant every morning proactively. Show your child what it looks like when their nails (hands and feet) are getting too long and help them use a nail clipper. Talk to your child about the fact that if they have a blister or rash or cut on their body, especially in a place typically covered by a bathing suit, that they must be able to tell a trusted adult (counselor, director, nurse, etc…) at camp. Read the book “Everyone Poops” by Taro Gomi with your child and talk to them about bathroom regularity and when to tell a trusted adult if you have not been “going number two.” Talk to your child about washing hands and / or using hand sanitizer as often as possible to stay healthy and clean. Help your child practice filling a water bottle in the morning and get them used to drinking water frequently all day long. Certainly, the staff will be there to monitor and help with your children’s personal hygiene, but helping your child feel a sense of understanding of their own personal hygiene before camp, will help them master it at camp. (*see number 10)
5. Organization – The biggest tip here is to stick to the packing list and do not over pack. The more your child brings to camp, the more stuff they have to manage and organize. Involve your child in the purchasing of or collecting items for camp. Have your child help you pack their duffle bag so they know what their stuff looks like and see what they are bringing with them to camp. Show your children where and how all their items are labeled with their first and last name. Practice folding clothes, not just shirts, but shorts, underwear, socks, towels, etc… We are not looking for military precision but if children can fold their clothes they are more likely to have neat and organized cubbies where they can find things. Discuss with your child how to put their stuff in their cubbies (click here for our Cubbie Orientation Video) to use the space in the most organized way for them. When it comes to the extra “stuff” they bring (i.e. stationery, card games, batteries, hair ties, etc…) clear Ziploc bags with their name and what goes in the bag (i.e. Laurie’s Batteries) written on the bag in permanent marker will help them keep these items better organized in the cubbies. Make sure every item of clothing, sport equipment, music devices, books, water bottles, toiletries, etc, are labeled with your child’s name. Help your child learn that organizing their clothes and things will help them at camp and practice those tasks in their room at home. (*see number 10)
6. Letter Writing (and Phone Calls) – I ask you, when was the last time your child wrote a letter on paper, with a pen or pencil, and properly addressed an envelope? If you want to receive letters from your child(ren) this summer, help them practice how to address an envelope. Let them write out the mailing address, return address, and show them where to put the stamp. Many parents print mailing labels and return address labels and adhere them to envelopes with stamps prior to camp. That is a great idea but involve your child in that process so if they run out of pre-labeled envelopes, they still know where the mailing address, return address, and stamps go and know how to write the proper addresses out. Similarly, I would guess that your child doesn’t frequently talk in depth on the phone. When it comes to getting your child to share information in a letter or on the phone, you may need to coach them on what they might want to talk about or even prompt them for information. If you ask them open ended questions in your letters and phone calls, you are more likely to get the information back from them that you want. Be a bit of an interviewer when writing to your child or talking to them in a phone call so you are asking them to give you the details and information you want to know that may be hard for them to come up with on their own to share. If you give your child post-cards or letters with preprinted “check off boxes” that is the extent of the information you are going to get. If you are ok with that, great. When you get letters from your child, remember two important things, (1) children often get emotional when they are not distracted by the fun of camp and just thinking about writing a letter to you, and, (2) the letter is a few days old and may be old news by the time you are reading it. Often campers are happy and having fun and when the action of camp stops and it’s a quiet letter writing time of day, thinking about your parents makes you miss them more. Additionally, children don’t always understand, let alone know how to express, the dual feelings of having fun at camp AND also missing home, so they focus on the latter in letters. Help your child understand that they can have both feelings and that they are both totally normal. Remember that mail can take 3-5 days to get from one place to another but since children can only write letters to you (not email you), they always appreciate the effort it takes for you to write a “real” letter to them too. (*see number 10)
7. Making Choices – An important skill in life is decision making and camp is a great, child focused place to practice making choices. One of the greatest things children do at camp is try something new. Talk to your child about being excited for them to try things they never tried before and that you can’t wait to hear all about it, even if when they tried something it didn’t go as planned or they didn’t end up liking it. The growth is in the trying (Around the Campfire with Laurie: Avoiding the Perfectionist Trap: How to Embrace the Discomfort of Growth) and that the important part is the trying even if it did not go as planned. Empower your child(ren) to have a voice in what they choose to try at camp. Encourage them to think about what do they, individually, like to do or what to try, and help them see the joy in doing that, not just following the crowd’s choices. Talk to them about communal living and when they are living in a bunk with other people, what are some choices that might impact people positively or negatively. Encourage them to think about shared space and empathy or other people’s feelings so the choices they make with their words and actions reflect them in the way they want to be seen. Talk to them about respecting their counselors when their counselors are trying to help them get out of bed in the morning, be quiet at bedtime, clean up after themselves, or be safe and have fun. Making the choice to listen when they are asked to do something the first time (or two) will be helpful to both the counselor and camper. Talk to your child about all the exciting opportunities they will have to grow this summer, try new things this summer, and become even better versions of who they are already. (*see number 10)
8. Camp Spirit – Help your child focus on all the fun of camp. Talk to them and show them pictures and videos from the website about all the friendships, activities, and special events they are going to enjoy at camp. Remind them of why you love (and chose) this camp for them! Send them to camp with a few “Camp Spirit” items in the colors of camp (i.e. shirts, headbands, face paint, wigs, tutus, etc…) so they can show their spirit for and pride in their summer home (not to mention in our Green and Gold Tribal competition!). Send them with a few fun items like red, white, and blue for the 4th of July, “Western wear” for Camp Hoedown, something that could be a Halloween costume for Halloween in July, white tops (they just have to be mostly white, not plain white) for Friday Nights at camp, or other clothing that expresses your child(ren)’s interests or personality. They do not need anything dressy at camp and should not bring anything that is expensive or they consider valuable if lost. Comfy, casual, and fun is the way to go. Camp is a ton of fun!! If the entire family gets into it and gets excited about camp, that spirit is infectious. The more you can help your child get excited for the big and small moments of fun at camp, the more excited for the summer (and less anxious) they will be. (*see number 10)
9. Asking for Help – One of the most important things you can do to help prepare your child for camp is to talk to them about the importance of asking for help. Your child needs to know that you trust the camp and the people there to help them with anything they need. Talk to your child about how crucial it is to be able to talk about anything they are thinking or feeling or need help with, with a trusted adult at camp. The directors, head staff, cabin staff, and support staff are all there to help the campers have a safe and fun summer. Help them feel comfortable with the idea of talking to adults at camp. Do not send your child to camp with a secret signal to send you in photos if they are happy or sad. That is telling your child that you really do not trust camp to help them and that you are the only one that can help them. Trust us, this will backfire for you and your child. Talk to them about what situations or feelings they might have over the summer that it would be good for them to talk to a trusted adult about at camp. Remind them that camp is in touch with parents over the summer and that we are partners in it together to make sure they are safe and happy. Encourage your child to find their voice and advocate for themselves, with at least one adult at camp and remind them that camp, parents, and campers are all on the same team to have a wonderful summer. (*see number 10)
10. Borrowing Your Confidence – The most important thing you can do to help prepare your child for camp is to let them (which means that YOU must show them) borrow your confidence that they are going to have a great summer, that they are going to a wonderful camp, and that no matter what happens you are confident that they can handle it with camps help. At eight, nine, ten years old (sometimes even as an adult) it is hard to have the confidence or belief in yourself that you can accomplish something. But, you trust your parent(s) and if they believe that this is going to be a great summer, they will believe that too, or at least believe in you. Talk to your child(ren) about the reality that they will miss you and you will miss them, AND (not but), you want them to have an awesome summer which is why you are giving them the gift of camp. Talk to your child(ren) about the fact that, just like at home, just like in life, they might have a sad moment, a frustrating or disappointing event, or be in a bad mood one day at camp. Talk to them about what they can do and who they can turn to if that happens. Help them understand that while camp is going to be 95% awesome beyond belief, that 5% where they miss you, or feel under the weather, or argue with a friend, is okay too and you are 100% confident that they and camp will figure out the tougher 5% times so that they can relish the 95% of awesome times. If you are feeling less than confident, that is ok too. That is what we are here for. Call or email us anytime. We are happy to let you borrow our confidence and partner with you around whatever your concerns may be. We are 100% confident that your child(ren) is going to have a growth filled, positively impacting, confidence building, independence boosting, abundantly fun, and tremendously valuable summer… and that you will too. You can borrow that from us anytime you want.
Bravo to you! You are the smart and insightful parent that is giving your child(ren) the gift of camp and the amazing opportunities ahead this summer. We know that when your child(ren) comes home from camp in August they will be walking a little taller, singing a little louder, smiling a little bigger, and feeling even more like their best selves because they had parents that believed in them enough to give them an opportunity for a positively life impacting and incredibly fun summer at camp!
With warm and fuzzy wishes for a wonderful summer,
*This article was originally posted to The Trail in April, 2017