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Ask a Camp Director: What’s the right age to start sleepaway camp?

Throughout the year I field many questions from parents about our policies and practices at Camp Walt Whitman. Since so many of my answers could easily apply to other camps, I’ve created this forum to answer the most common questions parents ask about sleepaway camp. Feel free to submit yours here for a future column.

There is no magic answer to the question of what is the right age to start sleepaway camp. 

It comes down to a number of factors, including the era we live in. Historically speaking, we send kids to camp at a much later age than what used to be the norm. Many of today’s grandparents tell stories of going to sleepaway camp for eight weeks at the age of 5 or 6. While this may sound similar to them walking to school uphill both ways, enough septuagenarians tell me this story that I believe it’s true. And when we look back at the historical Camp Walt Whitman documents, it seems accurate. 

Today, 5 or 6 years old would seem awfully young for a child to start a full season camp. But age alone is never the determining factor in deciding when to start sleepaway camp. While the average age for a child who enrolls at Camp Walt Whitman now is 8 or 9, we have some campers who happily begin at 7 and others who truly aren’t ready until they reach 10 or 11. 

So it really depends upon the child’s social maturity and development in addition to their age and grade.

To help determine whether your child is independent enough to go away to camp in the summer, ask yourself how independent they are during the school year. Has your child been away from home before, and has it gone well? How does your child do when you go out at night? Can your child take a shower alone, brush his or her teeth, put away their clothes (when reminded)?

As a parent, you may want to also ask whether you are considering their readiness or your own personal needs and worries. “My child just isn’t ready for sleepaway camp” can often be translated as, “I’m not ready for my child to go away to camp and not need me.”

boys and girls playing at camp

Typically your primary concern will be your child’s physical and emotional safety at camp, but the daily logistics that you oversee could also give you pause. Will your child eat enough food and drink enough water to stay hydrated? Will they get enough sleep, apply sunscreen and bug spray? Will they make sure the sheets get changed if they have an accident? (Heck how will they make sure the sheets get changed at all?) These are all valid underlying concerns, but in a supportive sleepaway camp environment, your child will be able to successfully manage all these things.

For younger campers, Walt Whitman’s weeklong Pioneer Camp is a great introduction to sleepaway camp. Children finishing 1st and 2nd grades are invited to join this fun-filled but abbreviated sleepaway camp experience that allows both parents and campers to discover that they are ready for the separation. During this week that’s jam-packed with all of our older campers’ favorite activities, Pioneers discover all that they are capable of doing on their own under the supportive watch of our Pioneer counselors. They leave at the end of the week with a sense of independence and confidence and can’t wait to return to camp the following summer for a longer session. 

There are other easy ways for campers and parents to put their toes in the water before diving into a full session at Camp Walt Whitman. While we are primarily a 7-week sleepaway camp, we also offer a half session option to campers finishing 3rd, 4th or 5th grades, in addition to our one-week Pioneer sessions. This allows campers (and parents) to get a taste of the magic of sleepaway camp before growing into the full experience.

There is a push and a pull to sending a child to sleepaway camp. Some campers beg to go, which is a great sign. At the same time, other children would never go to sleepaway camp without the initial push from a parent, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready. A child who is hesitant to go to camp at age 10 will likely be hesitant to go to camp at age 13. Without being pushed out of their comfort zone to discover that they can successfully be away from home, he or she may also be the child who does not want to leave the house at age 18.

If you know your child is capable of spending a week or more at sleepaway camp, it’s perfectly acceptable for you to move the process along while expressing to your child all of the confidence you have him in him or her. The confidence and personal growth they’ll gain, together with the friends and memories they’ll make, are worth the temporary separation.