Toronto mom of two, Jennifer, is both nervous and excited about sending her 11-year-old daughter, Emelia, off on her first sleep-away camp adventure this summer. A bit of an introvert, Emelia was originally supposed to attend camp with her friend, but when her BFF backed out, she decided to go it alone. “It was really surprising to me that she’d be brave enough to do it,” says Jennifer, adding that she really hopes the experience will further boost her daughter’s self-confidence. “It’s a nice taste of independence, away from your parents where you’re doing some of your own decision-making, which is a little bit scary but totally liberating, too.”
Here are just some of the ways to help make your child’s first experience at overnight camp a resounding success.
Camp registration typically happens around March, which leaves plenty of time for nervousness to set in. To help get kids excited instead, talk about what they’re likely to do at camp.
Jennifer and Emelia checked out the camp’s website to see the activities on offer—none of which include time in front of any kind of screen. Most camps have policies limiting or even prohibiting the use of cellphones and other digital devices. “We want you to smell the flowers and hear the birds singing because a lot of kids are missing out on that,” says Janet Gusdal, assistant manager of Camp Wannakumbac, which borders Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.
In addition to picking up some new skills (archery, canoeing or candle-making, perhaps?), campers reap the benefits that come from new experiences—strengthening social skills and making friends, following different rules and trying things they might be a bit scared of. Children grow by stepping outside their comfort zones, and accomplishing what, in their minds, was impossible, says Gusdal. “They just get so much confidence from it.”
Even the most confident kids might experience moments of missing home during their time away. “I want parents to know that it’s okay for their kids to be a little bit homesick,” says Gusdal. Most kids get over their sadness within a couple of days, leaving them time to settle in and enjoy themselves.
While it’s a good idea to address the topic of homesickness with kids before they leave, be sure you’re not setting them up to fail. “The worst thing you can say to your child is, ‘If you don’t like it, I’ll come and get you,’” says Gusdal. Judy Arnall, the Calgary-based parenting expert behind Professional Parenting Canada, agrees: “Parents shouldn’t come and rescue them.” Letting children work through homesickness helps them learn they’re resilient.
Counsellors and other camp staff are trained to help kids through the rough patches. For example, the team at Camp Wannakumbac uses a buddy system, pairing homesick kids with camp-happy peers, in the hope that the latter’s enthusiasm will rub off.
Gusdal notes that children are often so busy with activities, most barely have time to miss home, at least until they’re winding down for the night. To help with those bedtime blues, Arnall suggests sending kids with a family photo, inexpensive keepsake or toy to help them feel closer to loved ones and provide comfort.
Emelia will be bringing her favourite stuffy with her, which Jennifer hopes will do the trick if she starts to feel lonely at night. “She can hug her stuffed animal and think happy thoughts about home and start fresh in the morning,” says Jennifer.
As much as we’d like to protect our kids from feeling sad or scared at camp, “once you put them on the bus, you’re out of it,” says Arnall. Her advice? “Parents just need to let go, let the camps do their magic, and the kids will be all right.”
When considering camps, Janet Gusdal of Camp Wannakumbac recommends choosing one that belongs to a provincial camping association. Accredited camps follow safety and staffing regulations, which will provide peace of mind to parents and help ensure kids are well cared for.