Campfire Notes

What Is the Best Age For Camp?

What Is the Best Age For Camp?

by Audrey “Sunshine” Monke

You probably want a number here. If you’re only going to read these first two sentences, then I’ll pick the age of nine.

But my real answer is a bit more complex. When to start sending your child to sleep-away camp is a decision that depends on you, your parenting style, and your child’s temperament. Many kids have extremely fun and successful camp experiences as young as six years old, but that’s too young for most kids. And, for some parents, the thought of their child EVER going to camp (without them) is unimaginable. If you’re one of those parents, please read Five Reasons Great Parents Send Their Kids to Camp. Sometimes, “he’s not ready for camp” actually means you’re not ready. Realizing that your child can be okay without you is sometimes hard on parents, and it’s a big step to let them have the independent experience of summer camp.

These are the guidelines I recommend to parents who are ready to send their child to camp but aren’t sure what age is best.

If your child is 5 or under, that’s too young for overnight camp alone. Go to a family camp together, or try an American Camp Association accredited day camp program in your area, which is a great way to get the feel for what camp is all about!

A young smiling female camper poses on a mountain top at summer camp in California.

 

If your child is 6-8 years old:

  • Your child is a fairly independent kid (not clingy to you) and can take a shower on his/her own. If your child happily goes to school and is fine at day camps and other activities without you constantly by his/her side, then he/she’s probably ready for camp. Parents often worry about the logistical stuff with young kids. “Will someone make sure he eats? Puts on sunscreen? What if he wets the bed?” Know that, at a well-run, accredited camp program, counselors are trained to take care of young children well. Counselors will make sure your camper gets enough water, eats properly, and puts on sunscreen. Most camps work with families of bed wetters to help them feel comfortable coming to camp. You just need to make a plan on how to manage the bed wetting with the staff at your child’s camp (using a pull-up and keeping small plastic trash bags in the bottom of the sleeping bag for the counselor to throw away privately works well).
  • Your child is ASKING to go. This usually occurs with younger siblings who visit or hear about camp from older brothers and sisters. They’ve been watching and hearing about the fun for a few years and they want “in.” I’ve often been at camp events where older kids are coming to hear about camp, and the younger siblings in attendance end up begging their parents to let them go to camp, too.
  • You, as the parent, are confident in your child’s ability to be away from you. And you are able to express that confidence to your child. And YOU can handle the separation.

For young kids, focus on if your child is ready. This is not the age to force camp upon a hesitant child.

 

Once your child is 9-10 years old, I have three different guidelines, depending on your child and you.

  1. If your 9-10 year old is excited to go to camp, go for it! Find a camp and sign him/her up!
  2. If your 9-10 year old is hesitant about going to camp:
    1. Talk with other families whose kids go to camp to expose him/her to the idea. Hearing how much other kids like camp might encourage him/her to want to go.
    2. Attend camp information sessions and browse websites. Watch camp videos to show your child the fun that happens at camp. If exposing your child to the idea of camp gets him/her excited, then forge ahead with signing up and sending your child to camp. If he/she gets “cold feet,” use these discussion strategies to let him/her know why camp will be good for him/her.
  1. If your 9-10 year old child is STILL hesitant, you have two choices:

The Hard Choice (Michael Thompson, PhD. would say the better one):

Tell your child, “I know you’re ready for this experience and it will be a good experience for you that I don’t want you to miss out on. I know you’re nervous, but this is something that is important for you to do.” Read the book Homesick and Happy as your homework before you broach the subject with your child. Explain all the benefits of camp and how you think camp will be great for him/her and how it is an important step in his/her growth and development.  Let your child know that you, as the parent, think it’s an important experience that you don’t want him/her to miss out on. And then, sign up for a camp that is a good fit for your child and offers activities he/she is interested in! Making this choice requires being able to stand your ground and not give in to whining. Better to not dwell on the topic until it gets closer to summer. Sign up but don’t talk about it too much, too far in advance if your child is especially anxious about it.

The Easier Choice (for now):

Give your child a one year “pass,” but follow through! “Okay, no camp this summer, but next year you’re for sure going to a camp we choose together that is a good fit for you. I know you’re ready, and it will be a great experience for you that I don’t want you to miss out on. I know you’re nervous, but this is something that is important for you to do.” Read the book Homesick and Happy as your homework over the year! Follow through and make going to camp next summer non-optional. Talk with your friends and research an accredited camp program that’s a good fit for your child. Attend “meet and greet” events or camp tour days to meet other camp families.

Know that kids who are hesitant about camp at 9 or 10 are likely to still be hesitant at 13, and possibly hesitant at 18 about going to college. For kids who are nervous about being away from home and parents who need to figure out how to work through those feelings, a week or two at camp is an easy way to start! It’s actually easier to start camp at 9 or 10 and work through those difficult homesick emotions without also contending with puberty. So… knowing that it’s great to get your child some independent experience early, forge ahead confidently (or at least pretend you’re confident!).

 

If your child is 11:

It’s REALLY time.  See the above steps but don’t do the easier choice. Remember when you were 11? Your best memories were not hanging out with your parents. Time to get some fun, independent experience!

If your child is 12 or older and has never been away to camp, please let them go! Seriously. I’ve been at camp fairs, where a mother with a child taller than she is tells me, in front of her child, “He’s WAY too young to be away from me for two weeks.” I look at the young person standing next to her and want to say, “He’s not too young. You just don’t want him to be away from you.” But, I can’t say that unless it’s a friend who I can be really frank with. So, I just feel badly for the kid, who longingly looks at camp pictures but knows that his mom won’t ever let him go.

Your older child will likely not be the only first-year camper his/her age. There will be fewer new kids at camp in that age group, but camp kids are welcoming, so don’t worry. Let your child be part of the process of picking a camp, but please send them to camp! I’ve met many families who waited until their child was 12 or 13 years old to start camp, only to be disappointed that they had so few summers to enjoy at camp before they were too old. Plus, the kids who tend to have the most extreme homesickness are the older ones who’ve never been away. But, if your child is one who may experience that extreme homesickness, isn’t it much better that it happen during a 2-3 week summer program than when they’re a freshman in college? Too many kids are not making it in college because they don’t have the coping skills to be away from home. Give your child the gift of early independence to help them develop the skills they need to thrive as a young adult!

So now you see why I couldn’t give a short answer.  I hope this helps you make the decision of when is the best age to send your child to camp!

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The Best Gifts for Kids

The Best Gifts for Kids

Most tangible, material gifts we give our children, spouse, and friends are outdated, broken, lost, or unused within months of the gifting. We can rarely remember what the gifts from past years even were.

Like most parents, I realize there are far more important gifts we give our children than the ones we wrap in December for Christmas or Hanukkah. This time of year is a great time to remind ourselves that the gifts that last are the ones that can’t be wrapped: gifts of time together and connection and of fun family memories.

As my dad’s favorite coffee mug says, “The best things in life aren’t things.”

In the spirit of this season of giving, here are a few (mostly) non-toy gift ideas. I hope you get some great ideas for each of your kids, and maybe the adults in your life, too!

The Gift of Time

Play games together

Game nights produce memories (good and bad), so maybe consider giving a group gift of a new game to play this holiday season.

Invest in a group activity

We have probably gotten the most mileage of family activity time from our basketball hoop, ping pong table, and trampoline. These are “big” group gifts that got the most mileage in both years and quality time together. So, if you have more than one child, consider one “WOW” gift that will get a lot of use. When our kids were little, a few of the most popular group gifts were a large whiteboard and a gymnastics mat. Both got many hours (and years!) of use.

Schedule “dates”

I know families who have “date nights” with each of their children. I love the idea and would like to work it into my gift giving this year. One child may want a lunch date, while another prefers a bike ride or a game of tennis. In any case, spending time with our kids, doing something they want to do with us, is a gift indeed (for both them and us). Time seems to be the hardest gift to give, but it is also most highly valued by the recipient. How about creating a gift coupon for a date that would be special for your child?

Event gifts

These can be costly, but one popular gift we’ve given our teenagers is concert tickets. Wrapping up the ticket in a gift bag with a ribbon makes it a “real” gift.

Subscriptions, Memberships, or Classes

Subscriptions to magazines, Book of the Month, music lessons, or classes are always a great way to give a gift that kids enjoy all year long! If a child has an interest in something specific and would enjoy an outing, consider researching a class or exhibit and creating a coupon or certificate to present to them. One year, I gave my daughter a one-day photography class using a local Groupon, and we had a great Saturday together in January learning how to use all the settings on our cameras.

Plan fun family events

Anything you do as a family creates memories and is a gift that will be remembered. Whether it’s a movie and popcorn night at home or a walk through the neighborhood to see the holiday lights, the gift of time as a family is so important to our kids. When we don’t default to our phones, computers, and TVs, it’s amazing what we discover there is to do!

Remember family memories

Like many of my gift suggestions, this one requires time. I love recording and recounting memories (my 36,059 photos on iPhoto prove it). My kids never get tired of hearing stories from when they were little or watching our scant supply of digitized home videos from when they were toddlers. One of my favorite gifts from my husband was a hard drive with all of our family movies digitized on it. We have had hours of entertainment watching our old home movies.

Take some time this holiday to get out the old photos (or pull them up on the screen using the cool new technology) and create a book or collage or slideshow together. We also like to list our “Top 100 Memories” of the year over the holidays. It’s fun to reflect on what we’ve done together and what’s happened over the year.

Gifts to Wrap

Books

For something to wrap, gifting books is always a great option, especially when I’m excited to have found one I have enjoyed myself and think the recipient will enjoy. And, although books are a material item, a good book has a much longer lifespan than most toys or electronic devices. Passing along a favorite, loved book (even if it’s well-used), inscribed with a personal message, is a fun gift idea. Or, giving a fresh copy of one of your favorite books or series that you enjoyed at your child’s age is a meaningful gift.

Books have the potential to be re-read, passed around, and enjoyed by many. They can take on a life of their own. While most books can be read on an e-reader or borrowed from the library, there are some that your child may value having in their personal library. When you give a book gift, be sure to inscribe the book with a note with the child’s name, the occasion the book is being given, the year, and your name. Who knows the mileage that book will have?

Another fun idea is listening to a book together on a holiday drive! Check out some fun family book listens on Libro.fm!

Personalized or Homemade Gifts

Having your name or initial on an item makes it feel extra special and shows that thought and time went into the selection.

Some of my favorite personalized gifts to give and to receive over the years have included:
Personalized stationery
Monogrammed towels, key chains, luggage
Framed photos
Collages
Letters of appreciation
Recipe & ingredients to cook something
Instructions & supplies for a science experiment
Supplies (and offer of your time) for a craft: wood working, needlework, sewing, painting, lettering, welding, etc.

Give friendship, fun, and growth

I’ll “wrap up” my gift-giving suggestions with one of my favorites (predictably, since you’re reading this on our blog), the gift of a session at camp! The gift of camp lasts a lot longer than any toy. Campers learn life skills, such as social skills, independence and responsibility, while having the time of their lives.

Many grandparents or parents give camp as their child’s big gift for the holidays. Especially for kids who have been to camp before, this is a gift they really appreciate. I like the idea of wrapping up the “You’re going to camp!” note with a campy item like a water bottle, camp t-shirt, beanie, sleeping bag, or disposable camera.

With our kids now beyond childhood, we opted last year (for the first time) to forgo the major gift giving and instead had a fun trip over the holidays be our big gift. We went to Costa Rica and took surfing lessons!

Instead of running out to a bunch of stores and wearing out the UPS truck with daily deliveries (both of which I have decades of experience doing), this season I will take a few minutes to think about each family member and friend and decide what would be a special, meaningful item I can give them or experience I can offer.

I wish you a stress-free holiday season where you can focus less on acquiring more stuff and more on creating fun family memories.

Audrey “Sunshine” Monke, Chief Visionary Officer of Gold Arrow Camp, is an author, speaker, and podcaster. You can find more of her writing and resources at her website, Sunshine Parenting. Her book, Happy Campers: 9 Summer Camp Secrets for Raising Kids Who Become Thriving Adults, is available wherever books are sold.

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