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Today's Family Man: How to pick an overnight camp

Any parent who's ever seen Meatballs, or any other raucous depiction of overnight camp, might want to think twice about sending their child away for a portion of the summer. But the experience can be truly amazing for a kid, especially with the myriad specialty camps and their bounteous facilities. Overnight camp can be a growth experience in which a child can learn more independence, an opportunity to acquire or hone skills (such as a sports or acting), and make friends from places beyond their immediate neighborhood or school. It can also facilitate a kid's appreciation for the cushiness of home.

While many of the tips recommended for choosing a day camp apply here, these are a few particular suggestions (and a couple of general ones for emphasis) to make the decision on overnight camps easier.

What to consider about overnight camps

  1. Is your child ready?
    In weighing the options for what used to be called "sleepaway camp," first decide whether your child is ready for it. Are they the right age and maturity level? Some kids can start going away at age 7 and others won't be ready until they are 12, but many children start around 9 or 10 years of age.
  2. How far/long do want them to go?
    Then, think of how far you want them to travel and how long you want them to be away. Going across the country might be tough for the younger ones and one week away may be sufficient for them as well. But two weeks or more can provide children can provide a rich experience for those above 10.
  3. What are the costs?
    Price is another major factor in choosing a camp. What can you afford? What's included in the price? Expensive doesn't necessarily mean great and there are a lot of moderately priced overnight camps out there. On average, the weekly rate for overnight camps can range from $300 to $1,000.
  4. What's the camp look like?
    If you can, tour the camp, preferably with your child. You can check out the facilities for yourself to see if it's safe and fits your child's needs. While you're there, meet the camp director to find out his/her vision, how many years they've been in operation, what they counselor to camper ratio is, whether they have licensed drivers or not, and what their safety/medical/emergency preparation is like.
  5. What are the specialty options?
    These days, overnight camps offer every activity under the same - well beyond the traditional hiking and lake fishing. There are camps that teach kids to scuba dive, manage horses like a cowboy, and even debate like a lawyer. Staffing is the key to the quality of such places, so check out the counselor credentials before making a choice.
  6. Who else can help you decide?
    Especially helpful in this part of the decision-making is the American Camping Association (ACA) accreditation. This organization checks out countless standards of safety, facility quality, and more. In the West, another group, called the Western Association of Independent Camps (WAIC) asks members to hold to high standards as well.
  7. Who knows best?
    You do. Certainly, get your child's input, but as a parent, think with your gut. Can you picture your child here? Is it a little challenging for them or will it terrify them? It wouldn't hurt to listen to Allan Sherman's classic comedy song "Hello Mudder, Hello Fadder." In the song, a kid with fears of malaria and man-eating bears learns to love his overnight camp experience. Chance are, your child will too.

While they're at camp

  1. They'll be well taken care of
    Once you've decided, your camp will provide you with a list of what to pack and what medical preparations you may need to make. While your child is at camp, they'll be well fed and sheltered (though the beds might be a little rustic), so don't worry.
  2. They might get homesick
    You should also discuss with your child the issue of homesickness and what you plan to do about it. Most kids miss home, so prepare yourself for pleading phone calls to pick them up. Decide on the circumstances under which you would go get them and consider making them stringent, such as a medical or serious emotional issue. This is a growth experience so pain can be part of the process of getting to the real fun.
  3. Don't change much
    While your kid is away, don't rearrange the house around or do anything like bringing home a dog. This would make coming home hard for your child and might make them not want to leave home again. But in this time they're away, do think about documenting what your child was like at this age. Plan a scrapbook to keep letters to home your kid might send and pictures they might take. Some camps even post digital photos that you may download as keepsakes.

Choosing an overnight should be done carefully, but realize there is no guarantee it will turn out perfectly once you do make a selection. Chances are, though, your child will have a massive amount of fun and learn even more about themselves.

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