Sleepaway camp conjures images of idyllic sunny days filled with sing-alongs, matching T-shirts, lake activities, close friendships, crafts, and, with some luck, a few life lessons. Many parents want their children to have the special opportunity to grow that comes from sleepaway camp — a chance to be independent, to make new friends, learn new skills, unplug and enjoy nature and supervised adventuring away from screens and social media.
On the flip side, there’s also the potential for uncomfortable transitions: sleeping in an unfamiliar setting, navigating new people, activities and situations … any of which can create anxiety for kids. Trying something completely new and different can be stressful at any age, and doing it on your own, even more so.
Many parents also worry: Will my kid freak out sleeping away from home? Who will take care of my kid if he gets hurt? Will my child get teased or embraced for any eccentricities? So how do you get ready to tackle an overnight camp? Here are a few pointers from local camp experts.
Explore trial runs
If your kid is showing trepidation about spending nights away, start slowly, says Vianca Navarete, a spokeswoman for Girl Scouts–Arizona Cactus-Pine Council, who is familiar with new camper conundrums. She recommends having a “practice” overnighter at a friend’s or a family member’s home for a night or weekend to see how he or she does. There are also camping situations that can make the transition easier. The Girl Scouts offers weeklong urban camps at South Mountain with a one-night overnight option for younger girls so they can ease into a sleepaway, Navarete says.
Katie Kurtin, a local teacher and child development and behavior specialist, says enlisting a small group of friends to go together to sleepaway camp for the first time can also create a sense of safety and connection and make the experience less intimidating.
Another option for easing into camp is family camp. Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, Friendly Pines and the YMCA all offer family camp options. At family camp, kids can experience all the trappings of sleepaway camp along with their parents or family members. Once they experience camp life with a support system, they’ll know what to expect when it comes time to go it alone.
Address potential concerns
Parents should have detailed discussions with camp staff prior to camp week. If your child has a history of bed wetting, wears diapers, can only relax with a certain nighttime routine or anything else that might need to be addressed, let the camp staff know. Counselors are well-versed in many of the typical childhood hurdles and can often deal with issues discreetly if given a heads-up.
Kurtin also urges parents to ask camp directors plenty of questions about how they deal with situations like homesickness, when/how kids can communicate with parents while at camp and who your child can go to for help or a hug. Parents can help prepare kids with this information. Also, know good camps are pros at dealing with kids missing home: “The camp staff is trained to address homesickness issues and will work to ease any problems,” Navarete says.
Send comforts from home
Send kids with something that gives them comfort, like a favorite stuffed animal or blanket they can turn to if homesickness sets in. While kids are often too busy with activities during the day to focus on missing family, during breaks and at night when things slow down and minds wander, it can be helpful to have a connection with home. Girl Scout culture promotes writing in journals so kids can process their homesick feelings. They also recommend sending kids with pre-stamped envelopes to encourage letter writing as another method of addressing emotions and creating a link to family. Kurtin suggests parents send surprise notes with their kids for them to open when they need to feel close to Mom or Dad.
Let them pack their own bags
The Girl Scout camp advises incoming campers to pack their own bags. When kids pack their own bags, they know what they have and where it’s located. So if accidents happen, kids have that much more control in figuring out a solutions. “Knowing what they packed and where [their stuff] is helps build their confidence,” says Navarete.
Understand a little homesickness is normal
Craig Johnson, owner of Crazzy’s Wasewagan Camps & Retreat in California, assures kids and parents it’s OK to be homesick. Considering kids are leaving parents and all the familiar comforts, it’s not unexpected that they’ll miss home, Johnson explains. But he hopes they’ll get to this mindset: “When I’m at camp, I’m homesick. When I’m at home, I’m campsick.”
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Open House at Friendly Pines Camp
Friendly Pines Camp — located in the Bradshaw Mountains at 933 E. Friendly Pines Road, Prescott — hosts an open house from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, March 28, 2020 to answer any and all questions from interested families about the sleepaway camp experience. Potential campers and family members can enjoy camp tours, wagon rides, toasting marshmallows, zip line rides, refreshments and more. A complimentary buffet lunch, hot Dutch oven biscuits with honey butter and ice cream cones will be served. The camp will also host a special 80th birthday celebration; this year marks the camp’s 80th summer.
Friendly Pines offers a wide range of traditional camp activities for boys and girls ages 6-13: sports, horseback riding, waterskiing, rock climbing, performing arts, fine arts, pets, hiking, canoeing and kayaking. There are four-day, weeklong, two-week, four-week, and six-week camp sessions available from May 23 through Aug. 2. Advanced registration for the Open House is requested by calling 928-445-2128 or visiting friendlypines.com