Originally published in April 2015 HerFamily.
The benefits of summer camps extend well beyond keeping children busy during summer vacation. Social interaction with a new group of people, focused exploration in a particular area of interest, introduction to fun new activities, and learning to be more independent and self-reliant can greatly enhance a child’s confidence.
But summer camp also means immersion into an unfamiliar environment, adjustment to a new group of peers and adults in authority, and time away from family that some children aren’t ready for.
Holly J. Roberts, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and associate professor of pediatrics with the Munroe-Meyer Institute at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says readiness varies from child to child, but there are some indicators that can help guide parents in determining when and if their child would enjoy a day camp or overnight camp experience.
“Children younger than 4 are likely to not really be ready for this level of transition from a predictable routine,” she says.
However, children between 4 and 7 may be ready for day camp if they’re able to separate from parents fairly easily, and especially if they’re enthusiastic about the camp theme or activities. For this age group, Roberts says, school-based or childcare center-based summer programs provide a great opportunity to sample the day camp experience in a familiar environment. Children over 7 who are accustomed to spending the day in school usually handle traditional day camps just fine.
However, overnight camp readiness may take a few more years. “Generally, kids are usually ready for overnight camp around 11, and they begin to be comfortable being away from their parents around that age. Typically, children younger than 7 are not ready for an overnight camp,” Roberts says.
“This is not a hard-and-set rule, either, it’s based on development and the child,” she emphasizes. “Can the child manage their own hygiene, like showering? Do they have full control over toileting? Is the child able to ask for help or state their needs if they need something? One of the best indicators of readiness for a summer sleepover camp is that a child can successfully spend a night or two with a friend or a relative.”
Even the most eager child can experience pangs of homesickness, and it won’t surprise a good camp staff, Roberts says. Parents should be familiar with the process the camp has in place to address homesickness, but in the care of experienced and compassionate staffers, children usually don’t pine away for home sweet home very long.
“Homesickness is a common thing, and there’s probably going to be a wave of that even in kids that are ready,” Roberts says. Packing some comfort items and a few prepared letters from home (with a positive tone rather than a lament of how much the parent misses the child) can help alleviate pangs.
Sometimes it’s the parent who’s not ready to separate, and that can lead to what Roberts calls, somewhat tongue in cheek, “kidsickness.” Finding a quality camp with managers who welcome questions and offer tours, that conducts background checks when hiring staff, and that has strong safety policies in place can help alleviate parental fears.
“I think a parent really needs to be ready for this before a child is ready,” Roberts says. “A lot of kids receive their cues from their parents.”