’Twas the night before camp
and all through the house
Not a creature was sleeping,
not even a mouse.
There was weeping and wailing, cries of: “No I won’t go.”
’Cause the kids weren’t camp-prepped, oh no, oh no, no.
Whether it’s day camp or overnight camp, getting a first-timer ready for day one is like getting them ready to start school, only more so: There are certain skills they need in their “kit bag” in order to thrive, and these skills don’t come naturally to all kids.
Think of day camp as the downscaled version of overnight camp: Many of the same developmental challenges apply to both. Day camp is just as big a separation for a five-year-old as overnight camp is for an eight-year-old. Saying goodbye to mom and dad at the bus feels the same! It’s a huge deal for the child.
Getting ready for that big moment requires practice in separating. If your child has been going to day care or nursery school, he has a leg up on the developmental task of separation; if he’s been on his own at home with a parent or a nanny, there has not been the necessity to learn to say goodbye, and it’s harder to do.
So practice separating! Set up playdates at the other kid’s house. Create as many opportunities as possible for your camper-to-be to separate from you for a few hours or a day. And please note —grandparents, aunts and uncles are fun, but they don’t help a child practice separating because as family they can’t provoke separation anxiety.
Parents need to practice separating too: We spend so much time and emotional energy engaged with our children that we too struggle to separate. Letting go is tough. We worry about them and we feel sad for us. Our job is to keep those sad feelings to ourselves; if our kids know that their departure — even if only for the day — makes us sad, they’ll feel sad too.
Camp (both day camp and overnight) is intensely social. You spend all day every day in a group. There is scant downtime, even less time alone to decompress, and it’s hyper-stimulating. It’s a high octane social pressure cooker. It requires kids — even little ones — to bring social skills to camp. They need to be good at three kinds of sharing: Sharing things, sharing space and sharing the grownups’ attention.
All this sharing takes practice. Talking to your child about the necessity of sharing is helpful; even more so is doing it. Spend time at a playground where kids have to wait in line for the slide or swing. Create playdates where they have to work on sharing.
Afterwards, reflect aloud with your child about what might have been hard about that, what worked or didn’t work, and how that experience of sharing will apply to camp. Make sure you do the asking of questions and he does the answering.
Your goal is to draw learning out of your camper-to-be rather than telling him stuff. That, by the way, is the root of the word “education.”
Get your child to practice soothing herself when mom and dad aren’t around. Tell her it’s normal to feel a little homesick sometimes. Help her make a list of things she’ll do when she feels homesick — like looking at family pictures, or counting off time till she sees you, or talking to a counselor. Make sure she memorizes that list so she has those tools ready when she needs them.
Think about other important but less complex skills that your child will need, and practice them too. Putting on sunscreen, packing away her stuff in a daypack, taking a shower, making her bed, getting up at the right time and getting ready for the morning: All these skills, if practiced, will create both comfort and capacity in your new camper!
Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is an expert educator in the areas of conflict mediation, self-esteem and anti-bullying, and she is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park.