How can we make summer camp work for our child?

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Last summer our then 7-year-old son Matt went to a few half-day camp programs, but when he tried a full day camp for two weeks he really hated it. After the first few days we gave up and let him stay home with his little sister and a sitter. During the school year he goes to school every day and stays in after school care four days a week, so we know he can be away from us all day, but we're worried since this summer no one can be at home if things don’t work out (his sister is in day care now). We want to enroll him in a really good (we hope) camp this summer, but we’re worried.  Suggestions?

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It can come as a surprise to many parents when a child who seems fine all day in school and day care complains about a summer day camp.  A child may say that the counselors are mean, the activities are too hard, or that it's just "no fun".  Occasionally, some children will refuse, or try to refuse, to go back to camp after the first week (or the first day).  Reactions like these can create big problems for a family when parents are working, but it's hard to deal with an unhappy camper even when a parent has a flexible schedule.

It sounds as if you’ve already begun your search for the right camp. Of course you need to find a camp that provides the hours of care you need, is reasonably convenient, and is affordable.  Ideally, you’ll also be searching for a program that has activities that are generally in line with Matt's interests.  Occasionally parents decide to send a sedentary child to a sports camp, or a child who likes to run around all day to an arts and crafts camp.  It may work fine to use a camp experience to expose your child to something new, but it's risky if you need him to go to camp for child care as well.  Keep in mind that a camp that emphasizes specific skills—such as sports or computers-- may not emphasize group interaction or focus on “fun” in the same way a general camp will, so that’s an important consideration if your child really wants to play (and there’s nothing the matter with that!) 

When you look into different camps, ask about how the counselors are chosen and what kind of training they get.  At some camps the counselors have been campers themselves and have had a year of “CIT”--counselor in training-- before being hired to be a regular counselor.  In other camps, counselors are hired because they have expertise in certain areas emphasized by the camp, such sports, computers, or art, and do not necessarily have experience in managing a group of kids all day.  Unless they are given extra training and supervision, they may not be as sensitive to kid group dynamics as they need to be. The skills required to teach a class are different than the skills required to manage all day outdoor play!

Here are some ideas for helping Matt adjust to summer camp this year with the least amount of stress.

•  Think about what you know about Matt's usual reactions to new situations.  For most children, going to camp means meeting mostly new kids in an unfamiliar setting, trying activities that are new to them, and learning to be supervised by counselors who may have varying degrees of experience.  If Matt has been in the same school for several years, it may have been some time since he has had to adjust to something completely new.  What was it like for him when he first started school? Even if he loves school and aftercare now, he may be just as hesitant about camp as he was when he started kindergarten.

• Try to take Matt to visit the camp site ahead of time and to any pre-camp activities that are offered.  Even if this isn't his first year at the camp, the counselors will be new and many of the kids in his group will be new.  

• For some children, an outdoor camp doesn't have the comforting feeling of "place" that is helpful when they are making a transition. Most camps have a lot of open, fluid space, which can feel very different than homes and classrooms.  Take the time with Matt to look around the area, find the bathrooms and the drinking fountains, the areas where he can always find an adult to help him.  See if you can discover a place that will be good for quiet time or taking a break. Some children need to withdraw from social activity every once in a while.

• Some children find it helpful to go to camp with a friend, but there can be disadvantages to having a "buddy".  Matt might think that a friend from school will be his camp sidekick, but if the other child (or Matt) wants to make new friends, one of them might be disappointed and unhappy.  Since one of the best reasons to go to camp is to get to know other kids, don't assume that having friends in his group is a plus.

• Many children who are successful in the classroom discover that success in camp requires different skills.    If you think that this might be true for Matt, it would be helpful to let him know that he will be doing things that are new to him, maybe hard, and that he doesn't have to be one of the best hikers or swimmers just because he's good at math.  

  • Keeping up with a group at camp requires energy and stamina.  It's tempting to let your child stay up late during the summer, but he'll probably need an early bedtime more than ever now.  If Matt slumps in the middle of the afternoon when it's time to go swimming, he probably won't be able to rest and and you may be hearing complaints about the "mean instructors". 
  • Sometimes families schedule a vacation between the end of school and the first day of camp. If that’s your plan, have a few days at home at the end.  If you don’t, Matt will have to transition from full time family life to the new experience of camp--and he will no doubt be tired from is family vacation!

• If Matt does come home with complaints, listen to him for as long as he needs to vent.  You can reflect back his feelings, "You were really upset," or echo his words, "You really didn't like having to be in the group that had to clean up", but avoid giving him advice.  Most of the time, if a parent just listens without offering  any suggestions or solutions  a child will pull himself together and the problem will disappear.  It's not that his feelings aren't real, it's that your quiet listening helps him to feel understood.  A parent’s understanding can be better medicine than a bandaid!

• If Matt's complaints are serious and specific, such as reporting bullying or that a counselor made fun of a clumsy child or used abusive language, do call the head counselor or camp director the next day to clarify the situation. If complaints are more general, wait a few days before calling, and ask for more information.  Ask the director to check into the situation and get back to you with the counselor's view or a general assessment of the situation.

• If Matt is really unhappy he'll need help from the camp staff to adjust.  Don't expect him to "tough it out" and make it through the session unless you're sure that the counselors are doing everything they can. A child who has had one bad camp experience may generalize the negative experiences to all summer camps and refuse to go anywhere again. In a well run camp, the staff and the director will want to do everything they can to make sure your child has such a good experience that he will want to come back again next year.