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How to Research and Prepare For Your Kid's Summer Camp

Ahhh, the dog days of summer. The scorching sun, high temperatures and energetic kids who are out of school for the summer. What's a parent to do? For some, this is the recipe for summer camp. Just as kids come in all shapes and sizes, so do camps. The American Camping Association (ACA) offers parents lots of helpful advice on the selection process. But before you sign those registration forms, how do you know if your child is ready for summer camp?

The first step is to consider your child's age, the length of the camp and your child's emotional maturity. Involve your child in the decision-making process – don't force the idea on him. Ask him what type of camp he's interested in, when he'd like to go and for how long.

"If your child brings the idea of camp to you, he's probably ready," says Dave Nealon, Camp Director for Camp Horizons in Virginia. "Even if your child is pondering the idea and is not sure, he can have a wonderful camp experience if you are supportive and get things set up for success." This means preparing your child mentally for camp, especially if this is his first time away from home. The ACA recommends that you and your child visit the camp ahead of time if possible, so that things won't be unfamiliar when camp begins. It's also helpful if your first-time camper can attend with a close friend or relative. To show your support and love, write an encouraging letter to your youngster and send it ahead of time so it's waiting when he arrives at camp.

Talk about what camp may be like with your child, acknowledge feelings of apprehension and discuss homesickness. Allow your child to pack a favorite stuffed animal, toy or picture so he'll have a comfortable piece of home with him. But the ACA strongly recommends that you not tell your child that if he isn't happy, he should "Call right away and I'll come get you." Doing this gives your child an immediate way out and does not allow him to work through justified feelings of separation anxiety.

"The third day is usually hump day in a four-week camp," says Marge Driscoll, Director of Member Services for the ACA. "If a child leaves after his first wave of homesickness, he'll miss out on a unique opportunity to learn people skills, a chance to grow as an individual and all those precious memories."

If homesickness does develop into a more serious problem, you can help reassure your child. Suggest that he stay two more days, and if he still feels the same way, tell him you'll discuss options at that point. Gently explain to your child that he's made a commitment to be at camp – not only to himself, but to his roommates and new friends. It's also important to talk openly with the camp director to get his perception of your child's adjustment. And support your child's efforts to work out the problems with the help of his camp counselors. There will be the occasional child who is truly not enjoying anything, not making friends and is just plain miserable. This child should be allowed to return home after some honest effort on his part.

Homesickness in your child is one thing, but what about the "childsick" parent? Are you encouraging your child to have a fabulous time or are you doing things to hamper your camper? "You have to be brave!" Driscoll reminds parents. "Remember, your child is learning invaluable lessons in decision making and is being given the opportunity to take risks and chances in a safe environment. Your child is also being mentored by caring, responsible adults whose purpose ... is to nurture your child." For parents who are childsick even before their offspring leave, Marge recommends beginning with a one-week camp vs. a longer stay.

Technology has been able to bring sought-after comfort to a parent's heart. Many camps have e-mail capabilities and allow parents to communicate with their child this way. Parents can also find visual satisfaction thanks to companies that post camper's progress and activities through photos on a Web site. Parents can log on to the site dedicated to their child's camp and, through a protected password, can keep connected through pictures and progress updates.

With more than 8,500 camps in the United States alone, it can be difficult to find the right one for your child. Fortunately, the ACA offers practical information and guidelines to keep in mind when whittling down your choices. Here's a list of questions to aid parents in the process:

  • What is the camp's philosophy or main goal for its campers?
  • What is the ratio of counselors to campers? (Average is 1:7)
  • How does the camp handle special needs?
  • How does the camp deal with homesickness?
  • Is the camp accredited by the American Camping Association?

Camps that are accredited by the ACA have committed themselves to uphold or exceed 300 nationally recognized standards set by their peers in the association. These standards cover everything from the camp staff's background to food preparation to safety guidelines.

"I completely checked out the camp before my children attended," says Lynn Skelly, who has sent all four of her children to summer camps. "I checked the camp director's references and made sure I agreed with the camp's ideas on how to handle behavioral problems. This way I knew I made the right decision when my children showed interest in camp."

Now is a great time to begin researching your summer camp options. By keeping your child involved in the decision-making process, and putting homesickness in its proper perspective, you ensure that your child will be a happy camper.

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