For parents who never went to camp, the idea of sending a child away for one, two, four or even seven weeks may be daunting. But with research by the American Camp Association (ACA) and youth development professionals citing the many benefits of a camp experience, parents are coming to understand that summer camp is more than fun—camp builds skills for life.

While experts agree that all children can benefit from a camp experience, camp is not one size fits all. Parents can find a good fit for their child by using the ACA’s camp search engine (campparents.org), visiting camp fairs and talking with family and friends in their community. Whatever kind of camp you choose, most children will be ready for overnight camp by their double-digit years.

The Right Age

“Kids themselves are the best judges of when they are ready. When they show spontaneous interest in camp, that’s a good clue that the time is right,” says Dr. Christopher Thurber, a clinical psychologist and author of The Summer Camp Handbook.

Rick Frankle and Alicia Berlin, directors of brother/sister Camps Airy and Louise, traditional Jewish camps in Maryland, say there is no one right age when a child is ready for overnight camp. “This is a very individual decision that focuses on the specific developmental level of the child. Some 7-year-olds are developmentally ready for an extended overnight experience, some are not. Some may be ready by age 10, some will not. We ask parents to evaluate how their child handles staying away from home overnight without parents present. Has the child slept at a friend or relative's house successfully? Is the child comfortable with new experiences?”

The decision to attend overnight camp should be camper-driven, says Gordon Josey, owner/director of Camp Twin Creeks, a West Virginia camp that offers two-week sessions only. “Children often start talking or asking questions about camp around third grade. Seven or eight years old is a good age because younger children tend to be happy and less worried about things. As kids get older, they think more. Virtually none of our younger campers gets homesick.”

Tom Bryant, director of Camp Hidden Meadows, a traditional camp in West Virginia, agrees that a child’s interest can signal readiness. Parents can spur that interest by involving children in gathering information about camp and reviewing it together. “If children say ‘yes,’ that’s great. If they say ‘no,’ find out why. They may have false perceptions. If after discussing their concerns, they are still reluctant, it might be best to wait a year, particularly if they are 7 or 8,” says Bryant.

“Encouragement is fine, but never force your child to attend camp,” Bryant advises. “For 9- through 11-year-olds, more encouragement is okay.  At this point in life, if children have shown some independence by sleeping at a friend’s house, they might just be nervous about camp. Speaking with peers and visiting the camp prior to summer can be very helpful.”

Joe Greitzer, owner/director of Camp Rim Rock, a traditional, equestrian and sports camp for girls in West Virginia, says, “Children are generally ready for overnight camp by age 8 or 9, but parents are often not ready themselves to send children to camp at that age. We encourage parents and children to visit camp before the session starts. When everyone knows where the child will sleep and eat and where the fields are, and meets camp staff, it relieves much of the tension. We recommend Dr. Thurber’s DVD, The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success, to help parents and children know what to expect.”

Alone or With Friends

Some children ease into overnight camp by going with a friend from home. Josey says that this is also a decision parents should discuss with their children. “Going to camp with a friend is better than not going at all, but part of the camp experience is making new friends,” he says.

Greitzer adds, “It depends on the child. Children who are strong and independent and will make friends with other kids may be fine coming to camp with friends from home. But sometimes when a group of friends comes together, they don’t make an effort to make new friends. Or they may turn against each other.”

“It may be helpful to come to camp with a buddy, but it is not a requirement,” say Frankle and Berlin. “Effective camp staffs are armed with concrete skills to build the bunk into a community, and camp friends often become best friends, even if they only see each other in the summer.”

Preparing Your Child

“If a child is well-prepared and parents are supportive, children will be successful at camp, even going alone,” says Josey. “Parents must speak with their children about what camp will be like. Girls generally talk and think more before camp, so they are often better prepared. Boys may experience more homesickness than girls because they talk less about their fears and don’t think about camp until they get there.”

Bryant says, “Speak with the directors before camp to learn what the camp offers. Make sure children have a good feeling about the camp so they can begin to take ownership prior to the summer. We often have counselors call families prior to arrival, just to say hello and ask children if they have any questions. Camp is an extended family and being comfortable goes a long way.”

Frankle and Berlin add, “Children should be comfortable performing some of the basic skills that they will need at camp, such as selecting their clothing, making their beds and showering and brushing their teeth. As you prepare a child for camp, discuss the kinds of activities [she] will do and share your excitement in [her] adventure.”

Research shows that the best way to prevent homesickness is to tell children that it’s okay to think about home and miss it for a few minutes, then get back to camp activities or speak to an adult at camp. Only about two percent of campers get homesick, and most of them are fine by day three. And that’s why many camp directors agree that an overnight camp experience should be at least two weeks long.

Choosing a Session

“Often if a camper arrives on Sunday and mails the first letter Monday, it might reflect some initial anxiety during the adjustment period. By Wednesday, when the parent opens the letter and calls the camp, the child is fine. Eight out of ten parents trust the camp to know that the child is really fine,” Greitzer says.

To help very young children get a feel for camp life, Camp Rim Rock offers a one-week Mini Camp for rising second through fourth graders. Camps Airy and Louise offer one-week Rookie Camps for children entering second and third grade.

But at traditional overnight camps, it generally takes several days to start making friends and get to know the counselors, figure out activities and schedules and work through homesickness or other difficulties. In a one-week camp, by the time a child really gets involved in things, it’s time to go home. Camp directors say that two weeks allows enough time to make better friends, see counselors as role models, actually learn some activities and have a rewarding experience. And children who sign up for an initial two weeks often want to stay longer. Camps Airy and Louise and Camp Hidden Meadows allow children to extend their session as space allows.

“Children should participate in the decision to go to camp and help decide how long a session to attend,” Greitzer says. “They need to know how long they are there for, and they need to know that they can’t go home early. That gives them an out that most children don’t need and keeps them from focusing on their success. When parents say, ‘If you’re unhappy, we’ll come get you,’ it sends kids a message that they need Mom and Dad to fix their problems. It’s a wonderful thing for children to develop self-confidence and responsibility, to learn that they can find their own solutions. Camp is a precursor to being able to survive college.”

Separating for a first-time camp experience is usually harder for parents than it is for children, who quickly adapt to the routine and spirit of camp. “Parents can prepare themselves by really researching a camp and having conversations with the camp leadership to understand their goals for camp and their style of working with children. Make sure that you and your child are completely comfortable with what you learn,” say Frankle and Berlin.

“Camp is incredible,” says Bryant. “It means so many different things. For some kids it is a home away from home, a different set of friends from school, in a different setting.  For other kids camp is a chance to experience the outdoors in a way that so few do these days, or a chance to do activities they can’t do at home.” 

Josey says, “When parents believe that camp will be terrific for their children, they are more willing to let go so that kids can go to camp and grow, be independent and have a wonderful time.”