Sleep-Away Camp: Yay or Nay?

It’s March! How did the first two months of the year fly by already? Many parents are thinking of or already completely stressing about summer plans and summer care for their school-aged kids. For some parents those plans may involve deciding if this summer is the summer to send a kid to sleep-away camp.

I longed to go to a summer camp as a child. It really wasn’t in my family’s budget to send me. I earned my way to a free one-week camp by memorizing tons of Bible verses one year at Vacation Bible School. (Give me a challenge? I’ll meet it.)  I babysat more neighborhood kids than I can list in order to earn the majority of the money necessary to go Space Camp for a week–but that wasn’t even during the summer. (Again, my parents challenged me to earn a certain dollar amount—not a small sum in late 1980s terms—and they would chip in the rest. Give me a challenge? I’ll meet it.) But mostly, I love summer camp and advocate for sending kids to summer camp because I worked at the same summer sleep-away camp for 12 summers and saw kids from all over the US and world loving life and being kids.

Why sleep-away camp? Sleep-away camp gives your child a chance to explore interests, relationships with other kids, and life without much control or guidance from you. Sounds scary, right? Totally! However, part of a kid’s growing up process is taking steps to be more independent from parents and family. You have to trust that growing up process. Sleep-away camp can be part of growing up. Residential camps give your kid a chance to form deep friendships with kids who they may or may not see again, but with whom they will form lasting memories. There is something about the shared-experience, away from your parents that makes summer camp friendships unforgettable.

Why I am choosing to send my son this year?

He loves traditional summer camp activities: singing, crafts, water activities, group games, team sports, being outside, and playing with other kids.

He could use a bit of freedom in the choices he makes. He’s an only child so he lives with parents who are hyper-focused on him and the choices he makes.

He can experiment with a later bedtime and the college-aged camp counselors can deal with his potential morning crabbiness for the week. I anticipate he’ll be in bed quite early the Saturday we pick him up. He’s the type of kid who knows he needs sleep and still goes to bed early in comparison to his peers.

My kid will be in a screen-free environment for a week. Did you know summer camps (at least the types that I’ve chosen to check into) don’t allow kids to bring their technology? Yep, an entire week without computers, tablets, phones, etc.  This, truthfully, isn’t much of an issue for our family, but I like the idea of him interacting with peers who aren’t focused on finding a video to watch or a game to play on their devices. They get to focus on being kids and interacting with other kids.

My son may learn some personal responsibility. At sleep-away camp, kids have to remember to change their own clothes each day. They have to remember to brush their own teeth. They have to remember to take a shower during the time that they are allotted to do so. Yes, I have doubts as to whether or not underwear and socks will get changed (that is still a daily struggle at home). I also wonder if he’ll take a shower, but that’s were personal responsibility comes in.

What will I do to help my kid have a great summer camp experience?

My kid will help me pack his clothes for 6 days. We will put an outfit for each day in a plastic bag. (Learned this from a smart mother when I was a counselor!) After we pack them, I will secretly slip a note in each day’s bag.

My kid will take practice showers between now and then on his own. He’s still a bath kid, so getting the soap off and shampoo (and conditioner as he has curls) fully out of his hair under a shower is different than taking a bath. (I’m looking for my kid to come home dirty, but not too stinky. So hopefully he will take one or two showers while he’s gone.)

I will send a letter or two via mail to my son. If care-packages are allowed, I will send one, too, with stuff to share with others who may not get a package. The care package will be small and meaningful.

I will NOT pack things on the “don’t send these” to camp list. This list exists at every single camp for a reason. Some reasons are for safety, fairness, mission, and trying to keep furry creatures from taking up residence in cabins with your kid. But most importantly, some items are on the list to keep you as a parent from getting upset with camp staff when your kid loses/breaks an “expensive item” you chose to send to camp even when asked not to (phones, digital cameras, and fancy watches/Fit-bit type devices I’m looking at you!).

I will put a bit of money in his camp account so that he can purchase a snack at the snack bar, canteen, or camp café. I will encourage him to buy a snack for a kid who might not have money on his/her account.

I will pack things that are truly needed and teach my kid to use them (or ask for help using them): sunscreen, a bar of soap, bug spray, a sunhat, and a good water bottle.

Is your kid ready for summer camp? As a parent you can never 100% know; however, you can have a good idea after talking to your kid. When thinking about your kid’s readiness, do some reflection with your kid. How will they handle bedtime without a parent? How will they feel about eating food not cooked by a parent for a week or two? Ask questions and challenge their answers. Have a real discussion. As a camp staff member, I encountered kids who were completely ready for summer camp and some for whom the entire week or two weeks was spent in the lap of a counselor crying or at the health care station with the nurse crying for their mother or father. 

Is my kid ready for summer camp? I really think so. He’s got a decent head on his shoulder and is always up for a good adventure. We’ve talked about things to expect and he’s committed to taking practice showers starting in April. He will be one of the youngest, but he’s willing to make friends with most kids, so I think he’ll do fine. I don’t think he’ll spend his week crying. I, however, hope he stops talking long enough to eat and that there is no soup served.


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