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Adventure time begins with sleep-away camp

Summer camp can teach kids all kinds of things, including that feeling homesick is perfectly normal

03/20/2013 9:27 AM

04/03/2013 4:31 PM

With spring break behind us, now is the time to start planning your summer vacation time.

If you are sending your child to sleep-away camp for the first time, you probably have dozens of questions. We talked with the experts -- camp counselors and staff -- to find out what things they wish every parent knew.

If you are considering sending your kids to summer camp, read on to get yourself -- and your child -- properly prepared.

What should I send with my child?

The camp will provide a list of things your child should bring.

Equally important, says Camp El Tesoro director Susan Merrill, be sure you check the list for what not to bring. Most camps do not allow electronic games, music players, or cellphones. A vacation from electronics also encourages children to make new friends.

Send more socks than you think your child will need. Youth camp counselor and director Arthur Stewart recommends packing two pairs of closed-toe shoes, in case one pair gets wet, and a pair of flip-flops for the showers or lake. There is nothing worse than running out of clean socks and having to wear wet or dirty ones.

Should I buy all new things?

Kids at camp will get dirty. Your child will inevitably get dirty and so will their clothes, shoes and towels. YMCA Camp Carter director Andy Hockenbrock says, "Don't send new things to camp or things that you are concerned about."

Kids lose things. Not only should you avoid sending new or valuable items, but also be sure to label everything with your child's name. At the end of each summer, Camp Carter donates a large amount of clothing, hats, water bottles and towels that have been abandoned.

Liz Stevens, co-director of the family-run Camp Walden in Michigan, suggests sending stationery. Your child will be busy and may not have time to write. However, if he is anxious or if you are, a letter home can make a big difference. Go ahead and address the envelope or postcard and include a stamp.

How do I know my child is ready for sleep-away camp?

Your child is both ready and not ready at the same time.

"The beauty of overnight camp is that most kids aren't ready for some aspect of it," says Stewart. You cannot prepare your child for everything that will happen to them. Overnight camp is an opportunity for growth and learning.

Stevens says that often parents are more nervous than their children are.

"Don't show your child your anxiety or they will be anxious, too," she says.

Your child may feel pressured or wonder if you will be happy without him. In her experience, Stevens says that it is the older children who have never been away from home before who are most often homesick. Boys who have not been away from home before the sixth grade seem to have more homesickness, especially since most of their peers have been away. On the other hand, children as young as 6 may enjoy long camp sessions without parents.

Hockenbrock says that the American Camping Association reports that about 83 percent of campers experience homesickness. If your child is homesick, several of his friends at camp probably are, too, and this is something that will draw them together.

Ultimately, Merrill says, your child will indicate when he or she is ready for sleep-away camp. If your child is asking about camp because her friends are attending, easily makes new friends and can maintain basic needs and hygiene by herself, she is ready.

All of our experts also recommended visiting the camp that you are considering during an open house, if possible. This will give you a chance to familiarize yourself and your child with the location. If you are not ready to send your child alone, many facilities offer a family summer camp. Everyone in your family will stay in the same cabin and enjoy a vacation together. The next year, your child will more likely be ready to camp without you.

What do camp directors wish every parent knew about summer camp?

Camp staffers are there because they love it. Hockenbrock says that camp staff members work for the excitement that they see in campers. The new experiences and the kids' eagerness to learn are what they enjoy.

Camp is a formative experience for children, Stevens says. Young children learn independence, trust and life skills that they will carry with them. This is an important stage in life that can have a huge impact on your child.

Merrill says that although most parents are worried about their child, being homesick is a natural process and part of growing up. Camp counselors are there to help your child work through that feeling.

So, trust the camp staff.

"We'll get through it, and everything will be all right," Stewart says.

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