Summer camps offer kids outdoor adventures and new friendships, but first-time cabin dwellers might also encounter a few jitters.
That can be especially true if they've never slept away from home before.
Still, parents can do much to help prepare their novice campers. At the top of camp directors' lists is having positive family talks beforehand to anticipate new adventures for children, ranging from hikes to canoe rides.
"Just build up the excitement in conversations while packing, looking at the website together and at the list of what to bring, sharing in the anticipation and getting ready," said Bob Baker, executive director of Lutherhaven.
"For a lot of kids, it's their first time away from home, period."
Most camps require kids to be entering the first grade before they can go to a weeklong, sleep-over facility, so the youngest campers are typically ages 5-7. Extreme homesickness actually doesn't happen that often because of kids' busy activities and how staff is trained, say regional camp providers.
Jenny "Java" Weddle, Camp Reed program director, suggests that adults try to avoid transferring their anxieties about a first sleep-away outing to their children.
"We have seen over the years that kids do fewer sleepovers away from home," Weddle said. "There are a lot of things to be worried about in the world. I think as parents we tend to be really protective of our kids."
While camps make safety a priority as well, parents sometimes are the ones having difficulties letting go for a week.
"I understand that as the mother of three kids, but the problem is when we as parents transfer that anxiety to the kids, we basically undermine our camper's experience," Weddle added. "If we take a step back, focus on what is positive, and turn it into a very powerful, confidence-building experience for the kids, that serves them a lot better."
Ways to build excitement for camp might be asking children a couple of weeks ahead about what they're looking forward to doing, or what they think about getting in a canoe, she said.
"For Camp Reed, we have a lot of pictures on our website; show them the pictures so they can see what's going on."
Parents typically will know if their child is ready for camp, or if they're not quite confident enough to spend a night away from home, said Poppy White, Camp Fire Inland Northwest director of camping and program services.
"It's a very unique experience," said White, also acting camp director at Camp Sweyolakan on Lake Coeur d'Alene. "We absolutely encourage families to talk about the experience, and get their camper excited."
"We have a welcome guide given to all families upon registration that helps them prepare, and we encourage them to go through that regardless of how old or young."
Parents also can talk to children about behavior expectations at camp, and that staff is there to help them, while they encourage their kids to talk with counselors, White said.
"There are some introverted little people, but they need to start the process of asking and communicating their needs."
A buddy system approach can smooth over potential anxiety. Most camps will allow a child to register with a friend, and even stay in the same cabin.
Another way to test waters before a full week of camp is for parents or guardians to encourage an overnight stay for at least one night away from home, with trusted family or friends.
Also, families can look into camp mini-sessions with one or two overnight stays. Camp Reed offers a mini-camp spanning two nights and three days for kids entering the first or second grade.
About five years ago, Lutherhaven began a mini-camp for younger kids to bring a parent, grandparent or even an older sibling, Baker said. Adults are housed separately from campers but interact at campfires, swim time and other activities. A $30 parent fee includes adult background checks.
"Mini-camps are an opportunity to try on camp," he said. "It's a shorter time away from home, so instead of jumping in for a full six days, you can stay for two nights and three days and bring a parent with you."
That warm-up also can be good for parents who are nervous about sending their kids, especially for those parents who didn't go to camp themselves while young. Generation Xers and millennials had far more summer choices growing up, according to Baker, from themed day camps to summer courses overseas.
"Lots of parents don't have camp in their background," he said. "We're seeing that more and more. The boomer generation might have gone to camp, but the younger generations haven't as much. They don't know the value of it."
Camp Fire also has several ways children can do smaller introductory camps, White said.
"If you were a day camper, you'd have the opportunity to stay one night," she said. "They can sleep out under the stars and cook dinner."
However, sometimes it isn't just the little ones who feel homesick. White once worked through initial jitters with a ninth-grade girl, a conservative Christian.
"She was feeling out of place," White said. "We sat down on the first day and had a long conversation. We checked in every day. I talked to the parents on a regular basis. On the last day, the ninth-grader came to me and said, 'I'm so glad I did it.' "
Family conversations also can gauge how much children really want to go to camp, and if they sound excited. Sometimes, it's more the parents' idea. Before camp, adults can discuss safety with children in positive ways such as listening to counselors and following rules, Baker said.
He suggested another good tip for preparing children is to have them take charge of packing their bags, although an adult should check for the must-haves and shouldn't-haves.
"Lots of kids are on some kind of medication, and we want to make sure the medication is in the original container and labeled," Baker said. "Sunscreen and insect repellent are easy to forget."
For younger children, they should learn how to apply the sunscreen. Bringing a pair of closed-toe shoes also is important for hikes or a rope course.
And parents who have any specific concerns for a child should pull the counselor aside at drop-off for a private conversation, Baker said. Parents might worry if a kid has special medication needs, dietary concerns, sunburns easily, or occasionally wets the bed, Baker said.
"Our camp counselors are trained to pull out a notebook and write down any concerns," he said. "Talk to the counselor when you drop off your child and make sure that counselor is going in with eyes wide open too and can be one more partner in making sure that kid has a great, safe time."
Baker said it also can help children to receive care packages or letters, mailed early enough to arrive at camp. Some adults give a bundle of cards or notes to operators to be handed out on different days of the week. Lutherhaven lets parents send emails that the office prints off to be delivered with mail call.
For a handful of homesick kids, camp directors say a little listening and encouragement to go on activities typically resolve the situation. In a few instances, parents might get a call, but they often talk their kids into staying, Baker said.
"Kids are learning how to live with other people in a closed community," he said. "How do you live in community when you might be with people you really like and with people you don't necessarily like, but you all work together and have a good time together."
"You learn how to communicate, trust, problem-solve. Confidence is all wrapped up in that, not only confidence in myself, but then I have confidence in someone else, and I can help build them up. It's all mixed together."
PREPARING CHILDREN FOR FIRST SLEEP-AWAY CAMP
Six tips for parents:
–Consider age and whether the child sounds excited to go to camp. Children under 7 might not adjust well to being away from home for a full week.
–Encourage one overnight stay away from home with trusted family or friends if a young child hasn't had that experience before. Also, many camps offer mini-sessions for one or two overnight stays to ease into an extended outing.
–Vary the sleep routine, if needed. For example, if children are used to falling asleep with music, they wouldn't have that option at a tech-free camp.
–Before camp, encourage family members to talk positively about the outdoor adventures and fun activities ahead to build excitement.
–Do the buddy system. Most camps allow registrations that request a child and friend stay in the same cabin together.
–Let the camper pack the duffel bag, although check at the end for must-haves and shouldn't-haves.