How young is too young to send a child to camp?
The answer is: It depends. Not so much on the child’s age, but on her personality and stage of development.
Lorrie Scott’s daughter, Carrie, was dying to go to Camp Sealth, even though she was only 5. “She was ready to pack her bags in November,” the Auburn mother remembers. Carrie went to a short three-day session at the Camp Fire camp on Vashon Island. “She loved it and went to Sealth for 15 years. Some of the other children who went to camp that summer stood with her when they all got their 15-year awards. These women are now 33 years of age,” Scott says.
“Some kids are just ready. They have never had an issue with spending the night at their grandmother’s home, or that of friends,” Scott adds. She’s always regretted that she didn’t get to go to camp until she was 11.
On the other hand, Alicia Hogl, a summer program director at YMCA Camp Colman near Gig Harbor, describes herself as “a very homesick child until middle school.” She never went to camp until she became a counselor.
Most local camps now take children who will enter first grade in the fall – age 6 or an older age 5. Others begin at second grade, or age 7.
“A lot of kids are ready at that age, but it’s not the best time for everyone,” says Chelsea Hendrikx, the new field office executive at the American Camp Association’s Evergreen district and a former camper and counselor at Camp Huston near Gold Bar.
How to Decide if Your Child is Too Young for Overnight Camp
Parents should ask themselves some questions when they consider sending a younger child to camp, Hendrikx advises. “How comfortable is the child being away from home? Have they done sleepovers at a friend’s house? How comfortable are they breaking routines?”
Local camp directors agree. “Parents will know most of the time if their child is ready,” says Carrie Kishline, senior program manager at Camp Sealth. “What is their level of independence? Have they spent more than a day away from home? Are they excited about doing things without parents? How comfortable are they around strangers? How quickly do they make friends?”
Hogl finds that most young children do fine, and that camp is a great place to learn social skills. Parents might want to consider delaying a first camp experience if the child “has trouble in social settings or is overwhelmed with large groups,” she says. Look at how they interact with strangers. Do they have trouble taking directions for adults that are not their parents? How do they do with babysitters?”
Todd McKinlay, longtime camp director at Hidden Valley Camp near Granite Falls finds that most of the younger kids “hit the ground running” and often do better than older kids going to camp for the first time. Hidden Valley accepts children 7 and older for 13-day sessions. “What we find is that kids are often more ready than the parents. The younger campers are way into it. They’re ready to gain some independence.”
If a one- or two-week session seems too much, many camps, including Sealth and Colman, offer short, starter sessions for young campers. They are usually four days long.
Tips for Your Child’s Success at Overnight Camp
Camp directors agree that there are several things parents can do ahead of time to make the transition successful.
“Have the child involved in the decision-making process so they don’t feel ‘sent away’ to camp,” McKinlay suggests. If possible, he suggests that parents and campers attend an open house or visit the camp ahead of time so that the children can see where they’re going to keep things, where they’ll sleep and how the bathroom routine will go. “We encourage families to be in touch with camp staff before, during and after camp, so that parents have a comfort level. We let them know that if there’s an issue, they’ll be notified.”
He and others recommend that younger children bring an item from home, such as a stuffed animal or special blanket.
Knowing what to expect helps younger campers have a successful session, Kishline agrees. She suggests sharing brochures, pictures and the website of camp with the child, as well as going to an open house and letting the child try family camping trips or sleepovers with friends or family. She’s observed that some children do better if they go with a friend; others make new friends more easily if they come alone.
Open communication is the key, Kishline adds. “Talk a lot about what camp is going to be like. Ask questions about what your child is nervous about to relieve fears. A lot of kids haven’t had to share space or a room before. Talk about what that is like. Ask them if they need a flashlight or a book to read before sleep.”
All of the directors advise sending paper, envelopes and stamps to write letters home with children. None of them recommend that the child call home. “A big no-no for parents is to promise that if they don’t like it, they can call or come home,” she adds.
“Be careful not to enforce clinginess,” Kishline advises. “If the parent is kid-sick, the child is more likely to be homesick.”