Even in the cold, short days of winter, two full seasons away from 90-degree days, camp registration season has begun. Are you ready for summer? The answer to this question depends on your child’s age and personality. With so many options for summer camp in the mid- Atlantic region, we’ve asked the experts from a variety of camps how kids and parents can prepare for summer, even when warm weather feels difficult to imagine.
To Age 5: Preparing the Family
Separation [can be] a hard thing at age 2 and 3,” said Michelle Gold, director of the Goldsmith Early Childhood Center, a preschool and day camp at Chizuk Amuno Congregation for kids up to age 5. Gold said there are a few ways to ready your kids for camp if this is their first independent time.
First, parents may want to “choose a camp where your children are going to go to preschool in the fall. It makes for a nice transition. Summer [camp] tends to be a little more laid back. It gives the children a chance to get used to drop off and being away from their parents,” Gold said.
To get kids familiar with a new facility, Gold recommends “bringing them to the playground on the weekends. Explain this is where they’re going to camp or school. Get them comfortable with where they’re going to be.”
Parents need to get comfortable too. “If there’s a ‘meet and greet’ before camp starts, go and get an introduction to the camp counselors,” said Gold. At Goldsmith, “camp counselors will call families before camp begins. Sometimes it’s the parent who has anxiety. In that case, we’ll invite them to visit a number of times.”
Once parents, and kids, see there’s a “loving, warm staff to help them through that transition,” Gold said, it’s time to “say goodbye and trust us to help your child get adjusted.”
Elementary School and Older: To Overnight or Not?
Capital Camps is an overnight camp that is going into its 30th summer serving the mid-Atlantic region’s Jewish community. With around 1,000 campers per summer and 170 staff members, Capital Camps generally enrolls its youngest campers “in second or third grade,” said camp director Adam Broms.
Leaving home for the first time can be tough. Capital Camps offers a “rookie camp, [which is] a four-day program” for first-timers, as well as a family camp program, according to Broms.
To soothe nervous first- timers, the camp “meets the needs of kids where they are developmentally. Younger kids stay with their bunk [throughout the day] for relationship development. As they get older, camp is more elective-based. The level of choice is more significant, [and campers tend to] make relationships on their own,” said Broms. Although, “even our youngest campers can choose elective activities.”
Broms said parents can prepare for sleepaway camp in a few ways. “Do a few sleepovers,” he said. “Practice being away, and practice those independent living skills.”
Then there are important discussions to have. “Ask your child: what are your interests? What are you going to sign up for? Parents aren’t there to make decisions for them,” said Broms. That, he said, is one of the benefits of overnight camp. “It’s good for kids, their sense of independence.”
“Jewish overnight camp, especially, is such a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow,” said Broms. “Kids can experiment a little with their identity in a really safe space, a judgment-free zone.”
Broms said camps have changed the way they deal with homesickness. “It’s a normal experience, so we normalize it. It just means they have wonderful relationships with their family, and that’s great. Simultaneously, they can have a great time at camp while feeling that.”
Elementary, Middle and High School: One Focus or a Variety?
Mark Westervelt, assistant head of school and director of alumni relations for the Jemicy School, said Jemicy’s camp, Summer at Jemicy, enrolls around 90 to 110 students and focuses on summer learning. But having a focus doesn’t necessarily preclude a camp from offering a variety of activities.
This small camp environment, held on Jemicy’s upper-school campus and divided into two age groups, typically appeals to families “wanting to avert summer learning loss,” said Westervelt. “It’s just like being an athlete, if you don’t exercise, you’re not going to be ready when you need it.”
While Jemicy focuses on keeping academic “muscles” fit over the summer, the camp still offers a wide array of activities, particularly in the afternoon, which is optional at Jemicy. If campers stay at Jemicy, the afternoon is all recreational. “It’s not summer school. Even though we’re set up at our school and teachers are there, they’re in sandals, and we’re outdoors having a great time.”
He advises parents prepare themselves by finding out “what the daily schedule is, what the transitions are like,” and whether kids can opt in or out for full or half days.
“Visit the facility,” Westervelt advised. “Get a testimonial from a past parent. See if they publish faculty and staff information. How do they hire? Do they hire from within?”
Steve Cusick, assistant director at Summer of Friends, said their camp hires from within their camper populations. Summer of Friends offers campers the option to choose one activity (as in their four-week Rock with Friends program) or mix and match several activities.
When campers reach age 15, they can become counselors in training – for free.
Cusick advises that parents consult their kids on their interests, and consult the camp on the staffing ratios, the leadership structure, the camp’s cancellation policies and whether you can add or change an activity if your child changes his or her mind about their activities.
Whether a camper is 4 or 15, Cusick said, he encourages parents to “come in and ask questions” before summer begins.