Each summer, Jack and Olivia Dowell welcome more than 500 kids to their slice of heaven. Camp Bear Track, near Greer’s Ferry, Arkansas, is an old-fashioned sleep-away camp where kids huddle up in cabins, unplug, relax, and enjoy the diverse array of activities summer camp brings. While they play, they also gain valuable experiences — by making friends and managing the first taste of independence. Sleep-away camp is available to kids as young as 7 at Bear Track, which offers a five-day program for first-time campers.
Are you considering sleep-away camp for the first time? Wondering how your kid will fare? We spoke to Olivia Dowell to find out what parents need to know about that first experience, and how best to prepare your child for a great week. Here’s what she had to say.
Set Your Kid Up for Success
The first concern on everyone's mind is homesickness. No one wants to hear that their child has spent a week in misery. So parents often send their kids off to camp with the assurance that if they get homesick, they’ll be whisked back home. But in Dowell’s estimation, giving voice to this personal doubt — that Josh or Jen can’t make it a week without you — sets your child up for failure.
“It essentially suggests that you don’t think the child can manage. And that can get camp off on the wrong foot," she says.
Instead, encourage your child by telling him that camp will only last five or seven days, and that he’ll make friends and get to try new things. Encourage your child to share his concerns with cabin counselors, who’ve been trained to listen and redirect worried thoughts. Send along photos of family members and pets and tape these to bunk walls. You can also preaddress postcards that your child can send during their time away. While homesickness is tough, kids do overcome it — and often wind up having a good time in spite of themselves.
Share Personal Information About Your Child
No one wants to admit their 9-year-old still needs a pull-up at night. But accidents happen. And that’s exactly the kind of information camp directors need to know in order to ensure your kid’s success at camp. Bedwetting is a common issue, yet it’s one that often keeps a parent from sending a child to camp, for fear of embarrassment or being unable to wake up at night on his own.
But Dowell says that shouldn’t be the case. “The last thing you want is for a camper to be nervous, because that can exacerbate the situation. If we know this ahead of time, the counselor can run the child to the bathroom at 11 p.m. or figure out a strategy so that they can manage the pull-up without it becoming public knowledge.”
She advices parents to disclose any information about their child that might impact their stay, be it an aversion to snakes, a tendency to sleepwalk, or a fear of heights. That information will give counselors a heads-up. Also, be sure to include changes in family dynamics, such as the death of a loved one, a separation, or a recent divorce. “We hate to be blind-sided. We want our counselors to have the background on each child so they can draw that child out,” Dowell says.
Dowell also says behavior problems, while not unheard of, aren’t really that big of an issue at camp. “We’re 24/7 recess,” she says. “You don’t want to miss out on things because everything is fun.”
Get Ready to Be Unplugged
Many camps are determined to keep electronics at bay. So for kids who are used to living by their cell phone and the social connectivity of Facebook, this can be a big adjustment. But Dowell says, “I think it’s a relief for most. They realize it’s a lot more fun at camp than playing video games at home alone.” Share this news with your child, and let them know there are no exceptions. Camp is about building community and taking part in activities with those friends around you, not ones tethered to you via computers.
Most camps do allow kids to send emails at some point during the week. But sending letters through snail mail is more common. That’s not to say that kids can’t be reached, of course, if there’s an emergency. But camps try to keep communication to a minimum so kids can focus on daily activities and forget about the outside world for a time.
Take Steps Towards Independence
Though camp may be a season away, it’s not too early to get your child started towards becoming more self-sufficient. If you give your son or daughter the freedom to master these personal skills, chances are they’ll be ready for camp adventure come summer.
• Let your child be responsible for her personal hygiene. That means making sure she manages bedtime routines alone, including washing her hair and brushing her teeth.
• Get your child used to your absence with sleepovers at a friend or relative’s home.
• Encourage your child to keep up with personal belongings. Make sure he is responsible for selecting clothes and getting dressed.
• When sibling issues arise, let your children sort it out rather than intervening. Help them learn constructive ways of settling disputes.