March 2, 2016

How Do You Know if Your Child is Ready for Camp?

Parents are always asking me: “How will I know?” The easy answer has to do solely with separation. If your child does sleepovers (and doesn’t have to come home in the middle of the night!) that’s a positive sign of their ability to separate from parents at camp. Sleepovers at friends’ houses! Grandparents and cousins don’t count because the separation challenge is insignificant when kids sleep at a family member’s home. Same deal with parents going away and leaving their child with a beloved nanny or grandma. In their own house! This is not a useful measure of a child’s readiness to separate.

All children will separate. They’ll go off to university (with or without their stuffies) and it will be fine (mostly). But some are ready sooner than others, and it’s our job as parents to gauge that so they’ll be successful when they go off to camp.

It seems paradoxical, but summer camp, out there in the wide open spaces of the forests and the lakes, is incredibly challenging for lots of kids because of how crowded it is. Camp dining halls, however large they are, tend to be cramped and noisy. Lots of kids at a table, starving, elbowing each other, racing to get at the food. Sound a little like Lord of the Flies? We hope not, but it is hectic and chaotic and loud. There’s rough-housing, especially among boys.

Same deal in the cabin. Your child has their own room at home, or shares with perhaps one sibling. Imagine 12 siblings in a not-so-huge cabin. With ample opportunity to get on each other’s nerves and invade other people’s space. Especially if you’re a young child who’s not a total champ at keeping all your stuff under control.

Say a kid comes in from swimming and is in a hurry to get to archery. Will a wet bathing suit and stinky towel end up on somebody else’s pillow? Easy for that to happen. Will the child with the wet pillow have the social skills, the patience and the perspective to let their frustration go? This ability to manage frustration is the kind of social skill that kids learn at camp; but they need to have some of it already in place for camp to work for them.

The other hard thing about camp is the plethora of quick transitions that pepper the day. Despite giving every child oodles of individual attention, the camp day and its activities happen in groups; and the groups switch activities every hour. They bustle to and from meals, they have to get ready for the next activity. Deeply embedded in the camp day are dozens of transitions, which campers need to be able to manage fairly promptly, lest the group have to get moving without them.

Kids who struggle or become anxious with transitions at home or school are likely to find the transitions at camp too fast and too frequent. If your child needs lots of help transitioning, they’ll need help developing that skill.

Then there’s the over-stimulation. Camp is like Canada’s Wonderland or DisneyWorld. Any parent who has ever witnessed the end-of-day meltdown at an amusement park knows what I mean. Camp is go-go-go and with literally hundreds of people around. A world of hyper-stimulation with very little downtime. It’s super fun – and hard for some kids.

For a child who really needs their decompression time, camp can be a challenge. That child will need to learn some independent self-soothing tools before coming to camp, in order to find calm moments in the excitement of the camp day.

It’s ironic that when we take kids away from their screens, many wonderful things happen…. and one not-so-wonderful thing: Kids who really need their downtime, their decompression away from other kids, are getting it every day when they plop down in front of their computer at home and play… alone! When we deprive those kids of their on-screen decompression, the pressure can build up inside them and make camp life hard for them. Some kids find that lack of peace tough. Know thy child!

And figure out if they’re ready for that challenge.

How to make that decision

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