Considering Sleepaway Camp?

Learn From the Experience of Others

by Margaret Tao, Parents League Summer Advisor

If you want to figure out when to send your child to sleepaway camp and how to choose that camp, the Parents League of New York is a good starting point. We maintain brochures on camps and offer one-on-one sessions with camp advisors. Below is some of the collective wisdom of Parents League Members we polled:

When is a child ready for sleepaway camp?
"My daughter went to sleepaway camp for the first time after fifth grade. She was begging us to go; so we thought she was ready. She was not."
"My son's first year of sleepaway was last year, when he was eleven. The year before, he seemed bored by his day camp, so we decided to look at sleepaway camps."
"My daughter began at nine; she initiated the idea herself."
"Our daughter was eight when she had outgrown day camp, which we viewed somewhat as glorified day care."
"Our oldest child started asking to go to camp when he was seven after having gone on a school trip. We finally let him go when he was ten. We let his sister, who is three years younger, go the year she turned ten."

How do you find an appropriate camp?
"I asked friends and used the Parents League advisory service. I narrowed it down to four camps, and we went to visit them to see which would be the right fit. Visiting the camps is very important, as you really get a sense of the culture and whether or not it is appropriate for your child."
"We got a list of eight sleepaway camps from the day camp our child attended. We did not visit the camp before sending our child; we went on word of mouth."
"We looked at lots of videos, narrowed the choice and met the directors. We started late and didn't have a chance to visit the camps."
"We looked at a few camps based on recommendations of friends. The director of the camp we chose came to our apartment and made a presentation."
"A recommendation from a friend, backed up by information from the Parents League, determined our choice."

Four or eight weeks?
"Initially we wanted a four-week program, but the camps we thought would be the best fit only had eight-week programs."
"We thought that a short-term program would be good to test our daughter's readiness, but in retrospect, I think the camps that only have seven- or eight-week sessions are the better camps."
"We looked for four-week programs so we could also have a family vacation."
"We picked a four-week camp, with an option to extend."

Coed or single sex?
"We preferred coed camps for both our kids. Boys benefit from being around girls; our daughter is in an all-girls school and needed some more experience of being around boys."
"We looked at both; we had no preference. Our son had enjoyed his coed day camp. His all-boys sleepaway camp has a sister camp."
"We picked coed because socialization is important for our son, and there are few girls in our school."
"While we permitted our daughter to attend coed camps, it would have been better to have her first experience of sleepaway at a single-sex camp. She was upset by the boys' behavior, cursing in particular."

How important are location and focus (general, sports-oriented, arts)?
"We looked in Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, and we chose a general camp. I like to refer to it as an old-fashioned Yankee camp - no electronics, no fancy facilities, but great attitude and activities that my son was interested in."
"We picked a general camp that had a lot of water sports and a drama program. We did not want a competitive camp; the kids get enough of that at school. It's important to find out how the camp you are considering operates in terms of format, how structured it is, and how that will fit with your child's personality. We stayed away from elegant camps and camps with uniforms."
"I wanted a camp where the kids have a lot of choices and a lot of interesting options and for it to be relatively close; we chose the Berkshires."

Were facilities (bathrooms, cabins and sports areas) a determining factor?
"I wanted them to be well maintained and relatively new."
"I liked that the cabins seemed well ventilated (many camps' cabins seemed very dank) and that the art room was bright and airy."
"We wanted clean, somewhat authentic camp-like facilities and superior instruction."
"One thing we learned was that the camp's activities varied year-to-year depending on who the management found to staff things. One year there would be no sailing, another, no archery. It's important to ask every year."

Did you consider the staff and management important to your choice?
"I wanted a director who would really take an interest in my child and work with us to ensure he had a great experience. I chose the camp because the counselors are older (there are no CITs, or counselors in training) and the counselors have a week-long orientation before camp starts."
"We needed to feel comfortable with the management of the camp and meet the owner."
"It was critical."

What do you think about some camps' recruitment of counselors from overseas?
"The overseas counselors were very nice, but we felt they were really there to have fun and travel before and after camp. I didn't feel that they were as interested in the children's future as were the American counselors."
"I think it is great for the kids to have counselors from abroad. My son had a couple of counselors from Scotland, and we were planning a trip there later in the summer. So he had a great time talking to them about where we were going to go."
"It seems to have had a very positive impact on my kids; they liked meeting people from other countries, and the foreign counselors liked meeting kids who knew something about their countries."

Do you prefer campers to be mainly from New York City or from other areas?
"What made more of a difference was that our kids, who are in private schools, met a lot of kids from public schools and from the suburbs around New York City (though kids came to the camp from all over the world)."
"My son is not going with a friend, and I wanted a place where he would have a mix of kids he could see after camp - kids from different places with different perspectives."
"My preference was fewer New Yorkers."
"We wanted there to be no friends from school and not too many New Yorkers, just to give her an opportunity to spend a considerable length of time with children who have different frames of reference, mind-sets and life experiences."

Is it a good or bad idea for your child to attend camp with a friend?
"It can be incredibly limiting. Either they spend all their time together, or more typically, one makes another friend; the other feels left out and the friendship ends. Going to camp on your own can be a great opportunity to define or redefine yourself. Your friends from home may see you in a particular way and give you no room to evolve or change."
"It is important that my child have friends with her to ease the transition. This year she is going away with three other girls. For my son, we are looking at camps for next year where he will have friends. However, the child must realize that even a close friend will react to things differently."
"It is good to have a friend, so you know someone, but not a best friend so that you aren't joined at the hip."
"This should be done on a case-by-case basis. It depends upon the child."

Should one visit camps before deciding; if so, what should one look for?
"We did not for our daughter, but we have made plans to visit camps this summer for our son. The most important thing we will look for is how the children relate to the counselors. Facilities will come second."
"We didn't have a chance to visit. I would have wanted to see how happy and occupied the kids were and whether they were well supervised and to check out all the facilities."
"We would not have sent our son to a camp we did not visit."
"No, we did not visit. We would have looked at the facilities. The only surprise was how wooded the camp site actually was; the aerial photos make it seem more open than it actually is."

What does one do when a child begs to come home? What is the best way to handle visiting day? What about letters, e-mails, phone calls and care packages?
"Get instant messaging to make e-mail sessions more immediate."
"We took our guidance from the camp, and it was quite successful. We weren't allowed to call, send e-mails or food. I sent postcards about every other day and also sent him his favorite comic books."
"On visiting day, bring lots of candy and keep a smile plastered on your face, even when it's time to go. Limit calls, e-mails and care packages even if the camp doesn't. The more the parents' presence is felt, the less the child is able to adapt and feel confident and comfortable."
"Enjoy visiting day! It's great! We write a lot of letters and hope to receive a lot. There are three scheduled phone calls and no care packages."
"Remember that your child will have expectations that he or she may or may not express. Try to listen to your child and do what he or she wants for the day within the camp's rules. Both our kids ended up in tears at one or another visiting day because we missed their signals. We tried to write early enough so that the kids had letters waiting when they arrived at camp, but we refused to send candy in care packages."

How did you handle your child's homesickness?
"I sent a real letter or card every day with a tidbit about what was happening at home with the dog or cat."
"It was extremely difficult because our daughter was so overwhelmed with homesickness. The director of the camp asked us to make an emergency trip in the middle of the three-week session."

How did your child's camp handle such difficult situations as homesickness, dislike of bunkmates or vice versa?
"When our younger daughter was briefly homesick her first year, the camp let her spend time with her brother and our neighbor, who was by then a junior counselor."
"The camp director did not handle homesickness well."
"After a camper was rude and verbally inappropriate to several girls in the bunk, the director intervened, but it was a little too far into the game for my taste."
"One year a camper died; all parents were notified by letter right away, and the camp made what happened very clear. We were not hearing rumors but real information. We felt comfortable enough to send our kids back for several subsequent summers."

Were safety and medical issues addressed to your satisfaction? What do you think is important to look for?
"Make sure there are: a nurse available around the clock, a well-equipped infirmary and access to more intensive medical treatment."
"There are a camp nurse and a doctor on staff and a medical facility within a reasonable driving distance."
"The camp is well organized, and the director promptly returns phone calls."
"Our daughter has asthma and needed daily medication; we had several conversations with the camp nurse, which made me feel very comfortable."

What was the aftermath for your campers?
"Camp mouth and the submission to parental authority take a day or two to be readjusted. One other piece of advice: use the camp linen service and expect everything else to come back dirty and possibly wet."
"Our daughter was so happy to be home; she didn't want to go out much at all."
"He was happy and exhausted, and he immediately told me that he wanted to return."
"Our daughter wanted to go to a fellow camper's house for a play date within an hour of coming home."
"My daughter blossomed emotionally and socially. Although I'd never attended sleepaway camp and initially wasn't particularly motivated to send our daughter, it has been an incredible and extremely positive experience for her."

Margaret Tao, a Summer Advisor for the Parents League of New York, polled a group of parents for this article.