Saying goodbye to the family and going to stay in a strange place for a week or more can be a difficult thing for anyone to do: and if you’re a child who has never been away from home overnight, camp can be a very intimidating place. Thankfully, camp directors agree that a little preparation goes a long way — and with the right guidance, any camper can have an experience that will become a cherished memory for life.

Sarah Cunningham Costa, director of YMCA Camp Takodah in Richmond, an overnight camp for children ages 8 to 16 (usually for two weeks), said determining whether a child is ready to attend camp starts with a conversation with parents.

“I ask if they can do trial runs with their kids,” she said. “Whether it’s staying at their grandparents’ or a friend’s house overnight, the idea is to have the confidence to be alone without them.”

She tells parents and campers that it’s okay to miss family and feel sad and homesick.

“I tell parents their kids can have a lot of fun and also miss you,” she said, “and they will grow from that experience.”

There is research, she added, to support that children who get through overnight camp wind up being more successful later on, starting with the transition to college.

When campers arrive at camp, Camp Takodah staff sets them up to be successful during their stay as well.

“Their family can help them make their bed and get settled that first day,” she said. “The kids get a tour and we make sure their first evening at camp is fun, they get to know people and have a solid first meal. The staff stays in the cabins with them the first night to make sure they settle in, and we ask about their bedtime routine and add pieces of that so kids have the ability to work through those emotions and be part of the community.”

Parents can also prepare their children in the weeks leading up to camp by giving them books to read on the subject.

“Talking it through is a big part of it,” said Costa. “But we encourage families not to promise if their child is having a hard time at camp and they are sad that they will be picked up. Campers hold onto that no matter how much fun they are having. It puts this barrier between them and being able to make the most of their experience.”

The two-week time period is intentional: the first week is for campers to adjust, and the second week is for them to relax and have fun.

“When parents know staff has had so much training and sees so much thought, and professionalism has gone into planning camp, it helps to build their confidence in us,” she said. “They see we don’t take it lightly that they allow their child to spend summer with us.”

Campers appreciate the consideration as well.

“Some campers cry their first night here because they are so sad and overwhelmed,” she said. “At the end of camp, they are still crying but it’s because they don’t want to leave.”

Tory Abrahamsen, program director at Camp Spofford, which offers week-long overnight camp sessions for children ages 8 to 18, said children are separated at camp by age group to help with the transition: junior camp is for 8- to 12-year-olds, teen week for 12 to 15-year-olds, a week for older teens ages 15 to 18 and the final for all ages groups (although they still stay separately that week).

“We give parents the freedom to ask as many questions as they want and give them the best idea of what to expect,” he said.

Staff begins by providing parents with a list of what to pack for their child and asks for a list of dietary restrictions and a medication list as well as a sample schedule of what a day at camp would look like and a detailed step-by-step explanation of the check-in process.

“The first five minutes at camp sets the tone for the rest of the time there for the camper,” he said. “We don’t want people being lost and confused not knowing where to go. If they feel they are being taken care of right away, it eases tensions with parents and then with campers.”

When campers arrive, counselors have been trained to be on the lookout for campers who might need a little extra guidance.

“We have tools of the trade to integrate campers and make them feel welcome and at home,” said Abrahamsen. “We introduce ourselves and introduce them to the rest of the campers and invite them into what we’re doing.”

Because there are so many different types of campers from different backgrounds who attend camp, staff has an encouraging conversation with each child when they are greeted for the first time, and shows all campers they are excited to be hanging out with them for the week.

There may be some circumstances where a child is not ready to attend overnight camp, said Abrahamsen, whether they have severe allergies or are not comfortable showing or caring for themselves on their own.

But if a child has never been away from home or has social anxiety and trouble making friends, Abrahamsen encourages parents to send that child to camp anyway.

“Part of the benefit of a learning experience is it pushes you outside your comfort zone,” said Abrahamsen. “An experience at camp can be the gateway to push through those things and heal a little bit. If staff is trained well and parents’ expectations are met, there’s no reason not to come to camp.”

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