Health & Development
Starter Sleep-Away Camps
Crackling fires, cozy sleeping bags, and marshmallows toasted to personal perfection are among the most treasured joys of childhood. Many parents with warm sleep-away camp memories can’t wait for their own children to go. For others, the thought of overnight camp unleashes a battalion of butterflies.
Happily, some area camps ease young kids (and their parents) into the overnight camp experience, offering abbreviated sessions that cater to the needs of fledgling campers. These camps offer a toe in the water for what some say is a quintessential summer tradition.
“I think camp is one of the most important things for kids to do to help them be well-rounded, confident adults,” said Carrie Kishline, senior program manager for Camp Fire USA’s Camp Sealth on Vashon Island. “It helps them gain social skills.”
Campers get to be part of a small, tight-knit cabin group and see older campers as role models, said Alicia Hogl, summer programs director for the YMCA’s Camp Colman. “(Younger) campers can’t go on intense high ropes courses, but they can look at adventure campers and see what they get to do.”
Homesickness is often a worry for overnight campers, and all three of the camps described in this article keep lines of communication open. Camp Sealth prints out e-mails from parents every day for the kids. They also post daily photos of what is happening at camp. Additionally, Kishline explained, “Parents can call us any time if they are worried. If there are any problems, we’ll call parents right away and include them in the problem-solving process.”
James Simpson, whose 6-year-old son, Owen, attended Camp Colman last year, said they did a good job of helping parents feel connected. “They provide pictures for parents from sessions,” Simpson said. “We got to see what Owen’s experience was like.”
Simpson’s son is the third generation to attend a YMCA camp, and he is thrilled that his son got to “step out and do his own thing. He’s very young, but he got to make his own experiences. He liked the opportunity to form friendships and make experiences that were his alone. He seemed very confident when he came back.”
The YMCA’s 100-acre, densely forested Camp Colman, situated on the Case Inlet in lower Puget Sound, offers a mini camp for kids entering grades one and two. The camp lasts half a week, rather than a full week. Mini campers try out camp activities like crafting and climbing, with close supervision and bedtime routines that help them feel comfortable sleeping away from home.
James Simpson’s son, Owen, attended a mini camp last year. “When we saw the mini camp, we thought it was the ideal opportunity to make a test run of it. It’s a great chance to dip your toe in and see what the overnight camp is,” Simpson said. “He thrived.”
Camp Colman offers a parent/child one-night preview camp for first-time campers in the spring.
Camp Fire USA’s Camp Sealth on Vashon Island also offers shorter four day/three night camps “for the nervous or first-time camper.” Sessions are for boys and girls as young as first graders.
Kishline, the senior program manager, said they have specific requirements for camp staff for the younger kids. “We select counselors who are especially nurturing and caring, and function almost as a substitute parent, because that’s what the young kids need,” she said.
Activities are also tailored to the needs of younger kids. “They need more breaks, so schedules are kept simpler and are not quite as action-packed,” Kishline said. “They build sandcastles, swim, wade and explore nature. They like playing games and hanging out together. Everything is new to them.”
Camp Sealth will host open houses this spring where families can meet counselors and see what the 400-acre camp has to offer.
The Girl Scouts organization has three beautiful camp properties in the Puget Sound area. Their resident camps include three day/two night and four day/three night options, which are great for first-timers. They also offer week-long day camps with a Thursday night overnight option. Jennifer Dickson, camp director at Camp River Ranch near Carnation, says this is a great first step. “Girls become familiar with camp and the routine during the week before staying overnight,” she said.
Girls entering grades one through three are grouped together because, Dickson said, these ages have similar school experiences and this often allows siblings to camp together. The Girl Scouts employ a smaller ratio of two staff to 10 girls for this age group.
Living quarters for the youngest overnight campers are completely indoors with fully functioning bathrooms. “It’s like a big slumber party,” Dickson said. “The girls are all in one room together in bunk beds, and the staff is with them.”
Laura Spruce Wight is a Seattle-area freelance writer whose 7-year-old is eagerly anticipating her first sleep away camp this summer.
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How to Tell if Your Child Is Ready
P.E.A.C.E of Mind (Parent Education and Child Empowerment) offers a set of questions to help determine if your child is ready for sleep-away camp. See www.pomwa.org/default.aspx.
Has your child spent the night away from home before (and not just at Grandma’s house)?
Does your child show an interest in sleep away camp? (You may want that sleep away camp before they are really ready or want to go.)
Does your child respect rules well?
Will your child have the interest and ability to join the camp activities on his/her own? (Swim camp may not be so fun for a novice swimmer.)
Will you be close enough to go and get them if they are unable to handle camp?
Can your child articulate his or her needs/concerns to other adults well?
If you answered “no” to more than two of those questions, your family may not be quite ready to handle sleep away camp right now.