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10 tips to prepare first-time sleepaway campers

Going to sleepaway camp for the first time is exciting…but also a little stressful for a child who’s never been. Even if you feel confident that they’re ready for an extended or introductory session, like our one-week Pioneer Camp, a little bit of anxiousness is natural. Our counselors and staff have systems in place and comforting shoulders to lean on to help campers adjust to life at camp. But there are things you can do at home that will make the transition that much easier once they arrive. Here are the best ways to prepare your child for camp.

1. DO NOT PROMISE YOU WILL COME GET THEM IF THEY ARE HOMESICK! This is the number one mistake parents make when preparing children for camp. It can seem so innocent to assure a child that you will come pick her up if she is homesick or doesn’t enjoy camp, but giving her an easy out means there is no incentive for her to push through their initial discomfort in order to enjoy all of the benefits of camp—one of which is greater resilience.

2. Run through their routines. Practice the activities that you know will be expected of your child at camp that he has not done on his own before. This might include getting all of the soap out of his hair when showering, putting his clothes away in the appropriate location, making a bed, addressing an envelope home. You don’t have to practice all the possible scenarios; just focus on the ones he’s most unfamiliar with.

3. Talk about compromise. When living in a community, communication and compromise are essential. Let your child know that in her cabin, she is going to be part of a community of campers, and will need to work together and make compromises on things that she might not have to think about at home. For example, campers (and counselors) have to come up with solutions when one child wants a night light and another prefers to sleep in the dark or when one child wants to plan a cabin scavenger hunt and another wants to plan an ice cream party. Demonstrate for your child the times you compromise and the times you stick to your guns because something is important to you. Give your children the words they can use. 

campers posing for a picture

4. Speak to their strengths. Speak with your child about the unique traits and strengths that they bring to camp and add to their cabin. Along with sharing the value they add to the community, talk about how they will be able to enhance these traits at camp while also developing new skills. 

5. Give them lots of encouragement. If your child starts to get nervous before camp starts (which is completely normal), remind them why they chose this camp and all of the fun things they are going to get to do (which they were previously excited about), how many people are at camp to take care of them and look after them, and how confident you are that even though they might be nervous, they are going to have a great time.

6. Schedule a sleepover. One of the ways you can gauge whether your child is ready for camp is if he has had a successful sleepover at a friend’s house (not including your house or grandma’s house). If not, it’s a good idea to have a sleepover before camp starts. You don’t want camp to be the first time a child is experiencing the discomfort of sleeping someplace totally new. 

7. Set fair expectations for your child. While it’s true that your child will most likely have a fantastic time at sleepaway camp, it’s also true that there will be bumps along the way.  Make sure your child knows that it is totally normal if she feels homesick or things just feel weird at first. Then discuss who she can talk to, like her cabin counselors, or camp directors, if these feelings arise so that camp can help.

8. Label everything! Even the most responsible child leaves things behind at camp.  Labeling clothing is obvious (yes, even underwear and socks, as somehow these items often end up in our lost and found). But don’t forget water bottles, backpacks, towels, shoes, tennis rackets, baseball gloves and the like so they don’t lose any of their prized gear. 

boys playing at camp

9. Play games. Help your child learn the rules to some common “downtime” games that he can introduce or play along with his friends in the bunk. Kids often bond over activities and knowing Uno, Checkers, Crazy 8’s, Mad-Libs, Top Trumps, or anything else your child enjoys will make it easy to engage with other kids. 

10. Meet fellow campers before camp. Some camps offer a “new camper” gathering in the spring so that your child can meet other campers and have some familiar faces on the first day. If your camp does not offer a new camper meeting (there are pros and cons to hosting a day for new campers) contact your camp and ask them for a couple of names of other new campers that your child might be able to meet up with before camp.

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