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Summer Camp 101: A Guide for Parents

Summer camp: it’s what many consider to be a classic milestone of  childhood.

It’s what many of us— myself included— think of as some of the best memories of summers spent sitting around campfires, learning new skills, and forming new friendships outside the realm of our family environments.

A child’s first experience with summer camp can be an exciting time. There are new friends to meet, new activities to try, and the memories to make that will last a lifetime. It can also be a time of great anxiety, though, for both kids and parents. As a parent who might be thinking about summer camp as a possibility for your child this year, you’re likely have many questions:

What type of camp is my little one ready for?

How will he handle the inevitable homesickness?

And what do I need to do to prepare, anyway?

Since the summer camp registration season is just around the corner, I’ve asked Katie Hurley, child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of Practical Parenting, and Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association, to give us some tips on how best to prepare.

Has your child gone to summer camp? Leave your tips in the comments!

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  • Is Your Child Ready? 1 of 8
    Is Your Child Ready?
    According to Hurley, "A good indicator of readiness to separate is whether or not your child has experienced a successful separation in the past. Consider a week at Grandma's to see how your child adjusts to a new routine and different environment. Another good indicator is your child's level of independence. Is your child a self starter? Does he get dressed without prompts, follow self-care routines independently, and fix his own snacks? If you force your child into it too soon, you risk a negative experience that prevents your child from attending in the future."
  • Research, Research, Research 2 of 8
    Research, Research, Research
    After determining that your child is ready for a camp experience, research the options that are available.

    Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association offers these tips: "There are over 2,400 ACA-accredited camps nationwide, and there is a camp for every child. Using ACA's Find a Camp Database, families can search for camps by 100+ activities, including intensity levels of activities. Families can also search by location, price range, and much more. It's important to remember that choosing a camp is a family decision. Parents should start the camp search with their child and include the child's thoughts, input, and desires in the final camp decision."
  • Talk to Other Parents 3 of 8
    Talk to Other Parents
    Talking to other parents is a great way to prepare. Find out what their experience was like, what they might do differently, and any other input they may have.
  • Involve Your Child in the Process 4 of 8
    Involve Your Child in the Process
    There's no doubt about it: kids are more likely to have a good experience at camp if they're involved in the process, and there are so many ways to do that. Talk to them about their expectations. Have them participate in researching camps. Encourage them to talk to friends who've already gone to camp. It's a great way for them to get excited about the experience!

    According to Hurley, "Take the time to actually visit the camps, not just through pictures online, and look around. Comfort is key and children feel more comfortable and in control when they know what's coming."

    Smith adds,"Once a camp is selected, it is really important to help campers, especially first-time campers, own the decision. By including them in camp decisions — like what to pack — they feel more invested in the decision, and ultimately, they will adjust quicker to life at camp."
  • Discuss Expectations 5 of 8
    Discuss Expectations
    With any big event in a child's life, it's important to discuss expectations ahead of time. Talk about all those "what ifs"- homesickness, difficulty adjusting, and more. Give your child the skills he needs to cope. If it's an overnight camp, discuss both your and your child's expectations for communicating with one another.
  • Day Camp vs. Sleep Away Camp 6 of 8
    Day Camp vs. Sleep Away Camp
    Day camps offer many of the same types of experiences as sleep away camp, just on a smaller scale. If your child has never experienced summer camp, a day camp might be the best option. On the other hand, don't assume your child isn't ready for an away camp experience just because he's never been before.
  • Understand the Registration Process 7 of 8
    Understand the Registration Process
    "The registration process varies from camp to camp, but parents should definitely be prepared to provide medical information and immunization history to the camp. Parents should also share campers' special needs or allergy issues with the camp. Camp directors and staff want this critical information in order to give campers a healthy, safe, and fun camp experience. It's also important to make sure to read all the information a camp provides to you before camp starts, including specific camp rules, and contact the director with any questions or special concerns you might have," says Peg Smith, CEO of the American Camp Association.
  • Stay Positive! 8 of 8
    Stay Positive!
    Set the tone for a positive camp experience by sharing your own memories of summer camp, talking about how excited you are for your child, and focusing on all the wonderful new experiences your child is about to have. It's normal for you to have questions and concerns, but if your child senses your anxiety it's likely to cause him to be anxious as well.

    "Families should express confidence in their ability to have a successful camp experience. For more tips about camp selection and readiness, or to find the perfect camp experience, visit ACA's family-dedicated Web site", says Smith.

More by Mary Lauren
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