Six Tips for a Successful Sleep-Away Camp Experience

Considering a sleep-away camp for your child this summer? Here are few tips to make the experience an adventure he’ll remember long after the campfire songs are mere echoes in his ears.

Tip: Use KC Parent's Camp Guide to find the best camp for your child!

Determining readiness. Overnight camps vary in size, scope and age, welcoming campers anywhere between ages 6 and 19. Most kids are ready for an overnight camp by age 8 or 9. Whether or not a child is ready for overnight camp depends on personality and physical and emotional maturity.

Kristina Marchuk, mom of three, says her oldest daughter Katelyn, 14, went to her first overnight, a week-long Girl Scout camp, when she was 11, and her younger daughter Alyssa, 6, a Daisy in the Girl Scouts, will go to her first overnight camp this summer.

Try day camps to help introduce your youngster to the camp experience. Marchuk says sleepovers with grandparents and occasional overnights with their Girl Scout troops also helped her daughters prepare for extended sleep-away camps.

Consider the length of the camp. Because Alyssa is younger and hasn’t spent many nights away from home without at least big sister present, Marchuk chose a shorter three-day camp to see how she does.

“I’m more nervous about Alyssa. She’s going into second grade and will only be 7 by the summer,” Marchuk says. “I’m glad they offer that option to get the kids acclimated to spending time away from parents.”

Trish Barnes, the executive women’s director and K-2 women’s director at Camp Kanakuk in Branson, MO, and a mom of three children and three step-children ranging in age from 12 to 30, says choosing the right duration of camp definitely depends on the child and your goals.

“The first year I sent my oldest son just for a week because I knew two weeks or a month would have been tough on him. A week would have been out of his comfort zone, but not so overwhelming where it would spin him into anxiety,” Barnes says. “My middle son? He was the complete polar opposite. He was ready to go for a month right off the bat.”

Set goals. Besides learning new skills, children learn how to collaborate and live in community while at camp, gaining self-confidence and independence through problem-solving and teamwork.

“The camping world is an unbelievable place where you can help your kids learn how to face disappointments, have a voice, make new friends or just get outside their comfort zone and try something new in a very safe environment,” Barnes says, who has worked at Kanakuk for 26 summers. “It’s such a great accomplishment for a kid to get to do that away from home so that they know they accomplished that on their own.”

Also, include your child in deciding on a camp. Maybe she wishes to hone a specific interest like a sport she enjoys or wants to try a variety of new activities, like canoeing, horseback riding or zip-lining.

Research the camp. Do you want a faith-based camp or a more secular type of environment? Where is the camp located? Are you seeking a camp that offers a smattering of activities or one that specializes in one of your child’s interests, like art, music or a specific sport?

Look at the camp website. Talk to other parents for referrals. Visit the camp and talk to the camp director.

Ask about counselor to camper ratios, safety policies and how the camp manages situations like homesickness, anxiety and medical situations. And listen to your intuition. Does the environment feel safe and well-organized? Is the staff kind, attentive and nurturing?

Manage expectations. Explain to your child that she needs to stick with the camp through its duration. By seeing things through to the end, kids grow more independent in their ability to make decisions and more resilient in the face of adversity and discomfort—skills that will prove invaluable as they grow into adulthood.

“Coming home is not an option. Let them know that the expectation is that they are going to finish because once you start something, you want to finish it. The only reason you wouldn’t finish something is because you are in harm’s way or it’s going to be ethically, morally bad for you,” Barnes says.

Arrive prepared. Together with your child, spend time gathering everything he’ll need at camp. Through diligent research, careful preparation and a positive attitude, you’ll lower any anxiety he may have and set him up for a successful sleep-away camp experience.


Homesickness/Anxiety Coping Skills

  • Take deep breaths.
  • Focus on the present.
  • Write/reflect on five positive experiences each day.
  • Help others. 
  • Talk to your counselor.


Source: Trish Barnes, Camp Kanakuk


Tip: Use KC Parent's Camp Guide to find the best camp for your child!

Christa Melnyk Hines is a nationally published freelance journalist who resides in Olathe with her family, which includes her husband, their two happy camper sons and a menagerie of pets.

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