Summer Camp

Dear Sharon,We are about to start the search for a summer program for our son who will be entering first grade in the fall. What should a parent be looking for when it comes to a camp or summer program for 5 or 6 year olds? Is it too much for them to be there all day? Are they too young for bus rides in the hot summer months that take them out of their own communities? If they have never gone before and they fuss and fume about it when it’s time for you to leave them there, how shold a parent handle it? We have heard a few horror stories. Please help. We are parents of an only child and it is the first time that we will be sending our son to a day camp.Ben and Marcy

Dear Ben and Marcy,

Congratulations on having the wherewithal to start thinking about your child’s summer plans so far in advance. A summer program for any child should be fun and less pressured than the usual daily school schedule. It is nice for a summer camp for five and six year olds to incorporate a great deal of play, particularly outdoor play, into their activities and have lots of adults who really enjoy having fun with children.

At any age parents should think about their child’s particular interests when choosing a summer camp. If your child hates transitions a camp that goes on lots of trips is probably not the best choice.

If your child is interested in sports a camp that emphasizes computer skills is probably not a good match.

If your child is happiest around music try to find a camp that incorporates that as a major part of its curriculum. If your little one is scared of water, a camp that offers swimming as a non-mandatory activity and/or provides a lot of individual attention to children who are tentative around water is an important thing to keep in mind. It is also usually easier to go to a camp where your child is already friends with some of the other children who attend.

Your question about an all day program for young children is a good one. As much as we would like to offer a variety of summer options to our child many of us end up picking a camp in part because it meets our real life scheduling needs.

If you both work full time and your child is enrolled in a full day camp remember that time before and after camp is very precious to them. Group activities, even if they are fun and interesting, are different than one on one attention from mom or dad. Children need both to grow and flourish. Young children in particular need lots of time to develop to directly experience the love and appreciation that only a mom and dad can offer. Even if a child has been outdoors all day, time in the park with a parent or a half hour of playing tag on the sidewalk in front of your house will make a world of difference. Incorporating playtime before and on the way to camp can also help. One parent I know who worked long hours worked very hard each morning to get her son to the camp bus stop early so they could play all kinds of cuddly, throwing in the air kinds of games before he actually got on the bus. He would get to laugh very hard before he said his good-byes and it seemed to help.

I know it is hard to work all day and then play all morning and evening, but it can make a big difference to a child’s health and well being and can make their camp experience much more successful.

If you do not work full time it is easier for child and parent to incorporate parent/child playtime into the afternoon and early evening hours.
You asked if it will be too much for a child to attend an all day camp. Their morning separation time is probably not the best way to judge how their day will actually go. It is not uncommon for young children to need time to say good-bye to their parents before saying hello to their camp friends and counselors. An emotional good-bye may not mean the camp is too much for your child to handle. Their general mood separate from their hellos and good-byes is probably a better judge of how camp is going for them. Many children need more attention from mom and dad when they start a new setting but if they are crankier and more moody than usual, or show other signs of stress after a week or two into the camp period the situation may actually be more than they can handle.

If that is the case you might need to shorten their day or even give your child a day or two out of camp to see if that helps. If possible visit the camp and take a look to see if your child is making friends and enjoying the activities that are offered. A good camp experience should ultimately make your child happier not more easily upset at home.

Long bus rides may be the only way to get your child to and from camp but for some children they can be stressful. Some busses do not have enough adult help on them and children can have lots to negotiate (who sits where and with whom, what to do when so sticks his tongue out at me, etc) on a bus ride than can make the beginning and end of the day harder. On the other hand some children make close friends on the bus and love that part of their day. Again, it is important to match the particulars of each camp setting to the particulars of your child’s personality.

Children of ANY age need to have summers that are fun and less pressured than their regular routines. I think that the most important part of the summer will actually be the time they get to spend with you. While figuring out plans for a summer camp make sure you figure out a family vacation as well. A enjoyable summer vacation is often one of the most important ways to build parent child relationships and help get your child ready for the school year ahead. That usually means a vacation where you can spend time with your child doing child friendly “non-adult” activities in a relaxed environment where ideally you get a break to spend time with people your own age as well. There is much I could say about the importance of summer vacations but it is a good idea to pick other parents brains about things they have tried that have been fun, it is well worth the effort to start planning now.

Good luck, your questions are excellent, I think you will do a great job of finding a camp for your child.