How To Tell If Your Kid Will Do Well At Sleepaway Camp:
March is here. (!) Which means that if you’ve got kids of a certain age, it’s time to start figuring out what they’ll do all summer. This may well include summer camp. Which means you may be wondering, as I was last year at this time: Is my child ready for sleepaway camp?
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I first drafted this post last summer, mere hours into
complete and utter parental freedom missing my daughters terribly a little. Because, for the first time, I had just dropped BOTH of them off for a week at sleepaway camp.
Read: Hubby and I were CHILDLESS for the next five days. (!!!) For the first time in nearly a decade. We were
beside ourselves with giddiness wondering how to manage without our little ones underfoot around.
Seriously. As a parent, sooner or later everyone has to cut the apron strings a bit. But when I drove away from camp drop-off last year, our eldest was eight and our youngest was barely six. Part of me couldn’t help but step outside myself and think, What kind of mother drops her six-year-old off for a week of camp away from home??? (The first time I did a week of sleepaway camp by myself, I was nine.)
Your child may be ready if:
Yet I had no doubt that BOTH the girls were totally ready for this week of vacation from us:
- Kimmie did her first “mini-camp” experience (2 nights at Girl Scout camp, by herself and without anyone she knew there) two summers ago, at age 7. When she got home, she could not WAIT to go back the following summer, but insisted that it had to be for a full week.
- As soon as we dropped Kimmie off for that “mini-camp,” Essie started talking about going to sleepaway camp as well. By the time I dropped her off last summer, she could not wait to get rid of me.
Throughout the process of packing and getting them ready for camp last summer, I realized there are lots of ways to tell if your kid is ready for sleepaway camp. More to the point, I’ve seen all these signs in my own girls over the years.
So, if you’re wondering whether your own child is ready for this major step in independence, here are my
Top 10 Signs Your Child Is Ready For Sleepaway Camp
1. They WANT to go
I realize this sounds terribly basic, but it’s an important starting point. Whose idea is it that they go away and live with a bunch of strangers for several nights in a row – yours, or theirs?
Granted, Kimmie was totally primed for her first sleepaway camp experience two summers ago, at our council’s Girl Scout resident camp. By that point in her Girl Scouting career, she’d already heard plenty of tales from Mama about how much fun Girl Scout sleepaway camp was. As a result, she couldn’t wait to try it out for herself.
This does not mean that your child IS ready for sleepaway camp if they’re begging to go. But if you’re the one doing the pleading, and they’re not interested, then you have to ask yourself if this is the best thing for them at this point in time.
2. You are ready for this
A lot of things happen in life to our children before we’re entirely ready for them. Many parents get teary-eyed at sending their kiddos off to kindergarten (though I confess, I didn’t). Others find it hard to see their child enter middle school, graduate from high school, or go off to college.
This is not a bad thing. And a lot of those transitions are out of our control as parents. But think carefully about this: no one says they HAVE to go to sleepaway summer camp.
So if YOU’RE not comfortable with them taking that step, consider whether this is the right time – for them and for your family. Perhaps waiting one more summer would be better for everyone concerned. (Just make sure that you do your own mental work between now and then, so you don’t hold them back from this forever if it’s something they really want to do!)
3. They’ve handled transitions well in the past
What was the last grade your child started? And how did they handle being away from you all day?
If your child (or you) had a hard time managing the separation when starting in the 2s or 3s class at preschool, but managed the transition to “big kid” school fine, then no worries.
If your first-, second-, or third-grader still had major separation anxiety issues at the start of the school year, and they’re not so far beyond those grades, then think long and hard about whether sleepaway camp is a good fit.
Another indicator to consider is how adaptable and sociable your child is in general. Kimmie sometimes struggles to make friends in new situations, because she can be very quiet and shy at first. But she was SO excited about her first sleepaway camp experience, I knew that her excitement was enough to help her bridge this gap.
And Essie has always been our little social butterfly. Her first day of first grade, she knew only one other kid in her whole class; by the end of the week, she was friends with all of them. Hence I knew she’d do just fine making friends at camp last summer. Because of this, I didn’t expect she would have any trouble adjusting to sleepaway camp, either.
4. They are excited to try new things
Is your child always raring to go when it comes to new adventures? Or is your child the one who’s holding back, waiting to see how others will do or what they’ll think?
Both my girls have been anything but homebodies. When I dropped Kimmie off for her first day of Tadpoles (the 2’s class at the preschool the girls attended), Essie was still a nursing infant. We were first in the drop-off line, and Kimmie marched right into that building without a backward glance. When it was Essie’s turn for Tadpoles two years later, she did the same thing.
If your child can’t wait for the new school year and is eager to get rid of you at drop-off or bus time, they could well be ready for a week alone at camp. Child who clings teary-eyed to you when it’s time for their two-hour morning preschool or kindergarten session? Maybe not so much.
5. They’re housebroken
Not just toilet-trained and out of diapers, but fully housebroken. As in, not prone to bedwetting or having middle-of-the-night “accidents.”
This is not to say that kids who occasionally wet the bed CANNOT go to sleepaway camp. But stop and think about the rules and logistics of summer camp for a minute, especially if this is something you never got to experience as a child.
At Girl Scout sleepaway camp, at least, middle-of-the-night bathroom trips require that you wake a “buddy,” and that she put on her shoes before joining you on your trip to the loo.
I distinctly remember being too pokey about this one night, when I was a tween, and causing the poor girl who’d awakened me to have an accident. Right there in our tent.
Your child needs to have the ability to wake themselves up, realize they need to pee, and wake someone ELSE up. And then wait long enough for that other person to get her shoes on. All without having an accident.
If it’s all your child can do to get her poor bladder to the bathroom that’s two steps away at home, maybe she’ll be more ready for sleepaway camp when her bladder has matured a bit.
6. They do well with sleepovers
Has your child been on a sleepover at a friend’s house yet? How did (s)he do? Did s/he survive the experience without a single phone call home?
This is a great test for how well your child will do at sleepaway camp. Essie had her first sleepover at a friend’s house (a big sleepover slumber party for a neighbor’s daughter) when she was barely six. She was the youngest one there, but could not WAIT to go – and raved about it for days afterward.
7. They can feed themselves well
I’m not talking about with a knife and fork (though that’s important, too!). I’m talking about having the good sense to
- try new and different foods;
- be flexible about what they eat;
- be willing to eat something that’s NOT the same three foods they eat, day in and day out at home;
- AND be sensible enough to keep up a healthy diet, even when they’re away from home and you’re not monitoring their food intake.
The food at camp should be pretty healthy – and hopefully will also be tasty enough to entice your kiddo to eat it. But your child needs to know that it’s on them to do so.
Without getting too graphic, let’s just say that our family has firsthand experience with what happens when children get constipated from skimping on fruits and vegetables, in combination with the disruptions of travel.
I’ll also add that one of the things covered in my training, the summer I was a camp counselor at sleepaway camp, is all the things that can happen to children who get severely constipated. From backing up toilets when they finally DO go, to having LOTS of pee accidents along the way because their backed-up #2 situation is putting extra pressure on their bladder.
Um, yeah. Lots of unfortunate extra laundry in the staff washers of campers’ bedding in those situations. Not to mention some mortified children.
You don’t want your poor child to be that kid, trust me. So they need to be able to eat a healthy enough diet to keep themselves out of this mess, if at possible.
8. They can groom themselves
Again, this sounds pretty basic, but it’s important to consider. Specifically,
- Can your child shower herself? (Even if she usually takes a bath at home?)
- Can she wash her own hair? As in, can she rinse out the shampoo and conditioner?
- Can she comb or brush her own hair?
- Can she apply her own sunblock and bug repellent, with little to no help?
Your child’s counselor is NOT their parent. They will most likely not be allowed anywhere near your showering child, so cannot help them with these basics. And with a ton of other campers to tend to, they’re not going to be fixing your kiddo’s hair and dabbing on the sunblock for them. If your child can’t handle these tasks, you either need to teach them NOW, or hold off a year or two on sleepaway camp.
9. They can manage their own stuff
At sleepaway camp, your child will need to keep track of her own belongings like never before. If your child is hopeless in this regard, there’s no time like the present to start teaching them this important life skill.
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In an ideal world, your child should be 100% responsible for her stuff from start to finish – making up her own packing list, getting out her own gear (including permethrin-treated clothes to protect against insect and tick bites, of course!), packing her own gear, and carrying her own bag.
Except for that first year when I was 9, I don’t remember my mother EVER helping pack me for sleepaway camp. I always packed myself; I know this because I remember making up elaborate lists of which outfit I’d wear which day.
Realistically, even though I packed my girls’ things as minimally as camp rules would allow, their small duffels were too heavy for them to carry this year. But more important than being able to carry their own duffel is whether they can keep track of their stuff from minute to minute.
As I know from being a camp counselor, most sleepaway campers have not yet mastered this skill. As early as the third week of summer programming when I was a counselor, we could have outfitted a homeless shelter with all the clothes and gear already in lost-and-found!
So unless you like throwing money out the window, your child needs to be able to manage her own belongings. She won’t have you there to remind her where she put her shoes, or to remember her water bottle when she moves from one activity to the next. And again, her counselors are NOT her parents, so won’t do this for her!
10. Your child can self-advocate
Being able to advocate for oneself is a critical skill that everyone needs to learn at some point in their life. Many children don’t get to practice this skill much in their daily lives while living at home. But if your child is going to make it through a week of sleepaway camp, she needs to be able to do this.
For example: On an earlier family camping trip, Essie wore her flip-flops way too much around our campsite instead of her regular shoes. And we didn’t stop her (which we should have). After a few days of doing this every chance she got, she had several large blisters on her feet that had burst and were at risk of infection.
Needless to say, by the time she drew our attention to the blisters, they were much worse than if she’d let us know sooner. But it never occurred to her to speak up before things got that bad.
So before Essie’s first stint at sleepaway camp, we reviewed with both the girls that if they need first aid or are having another problem, they need to let the counselors know BEFORE it reaches a crisis point.
The bottom line:
When we picked up the girls the following Friday at camp, it was all we could do to get them into the car. They didn’t want to leave all their new friends and go back to “boring” old life at home.
Every time I asked Essie how the week had gone, all she could do was rave about how much fun she’d had, and how she couldn’t wait to go back.
When I finally said to her point-blank, “So you didn’t get homesick at all? You do know what ‘homesick’ means. right?” she replied without hesitating, “It means you’re sad because you miss home too much. I missed you, but I was having too much fun to be sad!!!”
As soon as this summer’s camp brochure arrived in the mail, she was all over it, and couldn’t decide which of this summer’s options sounded like the most fun.
What about you? Have you sent one or more kiddos off to sleepaway camp yet? How did you know they were ready? Let us know in the comments!
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