Some parents may cry over the mere idea of sending their baby to sleepaway camp. We don’t know anyone who is doing that while writing this sentence. We’re just saying: We get it. It’s hard.
But little birds must fly the nest, learn to canoe and/or snag the second lead in the camp-wide production of “Guys and Dolls.” And the American Camp Association says there are over 8,400 overnight camps in the U.S. So how in the name of s’mores do you know which one will be right for your seven-year-old? (Seven-year-old?! you ask, incredulously. Oh yes. If you plan to send your kid off at eight — a typical starting age in the Northeast at least — you’ll want to tour camps in action the summer before.)
Enter the professional camp consultant. These expert advisors make it their mission to match each child with the camp that will be the best fit for the next decade. The formula for a successful camper? Start young (between age 8 and 11), return every summer, make long-term best friends and gain a lifetime of confidence.
Here, the insiders school us on what to consider in a camp.
“How far are you willing to travel? Are you willing to put your kid on a plane?” asks Jill Tipograph, founder and CEO of Everything Summer, an independent educational consultancy that works globally, and regularly tapped by The New York Times for her summer planning expertise. “What kind of environment are you looking for?” Pool or lake? Bunks with no electricity or ones with Wi-Fi? “How long do you want your child’s experience to be — and are you thinking long-term in that your child can grow into the camp for years to come?” Certain camps offer full seven-week sessions only. Others offer two-week mini sessions for younger campers. “That in itself is a filter,” says Tipograph. “I always encourage parents to have their child go for that three to four week session to start because it takes two weeks just to acclimate. If they go for less than that, they’re not going to come back and say, ‘I made a new friend.’ It takes longer.” Adds Jack Driben, co-owner of The Camp Experts, an advisory firm with professionals all over the globe: “It’s the parents who are homesick. Children are not homesick. It is the parents who have the separation anxiety.”
Is the camp single sex or co-ed? Does it have 180 campers or 500? Do the kids wear uniforms or high fashion? Ultimately, per Tipograph, a camp’s culture trickles down from the director. When parents have zeroed in on a possible match, she urges them to call, if not arrange an in-home visit, with the head honcho. “How you are treated from the onset of this process as a prospective family is a reflection of the culture of the camp and what it would be like to be there,” Tipograph says. “Whether the director will take the time to speak to you — and do they listen? Or do they ‘Yes ma’am’ you about everything? Because a camp that yesses everything can’t be a camp that is really looking out for the good of the individual. If it’s right for every Tom, Dick and Harry, how is it right for my child? No camp can be all things to all people. They have to have an intentional philosophy. You really want to get a sense of who they believe can be successful at their camp. And any director who says that any child can be a success at their camp is wrong. I would pause and I would move on. Because it’s not possible. Every camp is not right for every child.” As for your child’s prospective bunkmates? Some parents opt for camps in states far away that attract campers from all over the country. One other key tip? When you visit a camp, look at the older campers. “Ask yourself, ‘Is this the kind of teen I want my child to become?’ How they get along, how they interact with the staff, whether they communicate with respect,” says Tipograph. “And there will lie your answer.”
Aside from picking a camp for its focus on wilderness skills versus musical theater, think about whether your child will be a big fish in a small pond, or if he’ll have room to spread his wings. How many first-time campers are starting at age 12? How many have been going (and cementing friendships) since they were eight? Do you want to send your adolescent introvert to a camp where years-long friendships are already entrenched? “These are clear variables that will start to shape your list,” Tipograph says. Some camps are structured. Others allow kids to choose their own activities, thus aligning themselves with non-bunkmates who may share their interest in cooking or mini golf. But bottom line? “The long-term benefits of overnight camp accrue the longer you’re there and the more frequently you return to that camp,” says Tipograph. You want your kids to have a great time year upon year because “You need continuity.”
Camps have protocols in place for how to deal with everything from peanut allergies to homesickness to communiqués from the infirmary to bullying. Parents should absolutely ask directors and other parents about them in advance. Check references. Ask the parents of an older camper how the camp dealt with bumps in the road over the years. “Any camp director who says, ‘There’s no bullying here. It’s zero tolerance’…I mean, it does occur,” says Tipograph. “It’s how it’s handled that matters. You just want to hear that these people are humane, that they can deal with situations.” If you visit a camp, look for signs of safety, like whether kids are wearing cleats or helmets during sports games, and whether there are enough lifeguards by the lake. If you have concerns about your child’s social-emotional growth, ask if the camp has an on-staff psychologist, “camp mom” or parent liaison whose role is to communicate with parents about those areas. Many camps have programs that reward kids for good deeds, for being empathetic and for being good citizens; often acknowledged during short ceremonies at end-of-day flagpole gatherings. Ask if the camp has such confidence-building initiatives built in. “These are the things that are transformative,” notes Tipograph. “Where are kids going to learn these independent life skills? At overnight camp. But it has to be the right one.”