With April here, we’re now only three months away from my favourite time of year: summer camp season! As Assistant Camp Director at Camp Muskoka, I get to enjoy everything camp has to offer as an adult. I attended summer camps as a child and when I became too old to be a camper, I decided I just wasn’t ready to leave! That’s what camp can do to you.
As early as it may seem, now is the time that camp registrations and summer programs begin to fill up - and families begin to seriously think about what they need to do to prepare for summer camps. For lots of families, especially those with first time campers, this can be a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming.
Here are some of the most useful tips I’ve learned over my many years at camp that will help everything seem much more manageable:
1. Get your child involved in choosing which summer camp they would like to attend. There are so many camp fairs that run in the winter months, mostly from November to early March, and they are all hosted in so many different locations. For Ontarians, the Ontario Camps Association website is an excellent resource to find out where and when these camp fairs will be. They are often a mix of all different types of camps: overnight, day camps, traditional camps, camps for children with additional needs, and area-specific camps like sports or arts camps.
These fairs are designed for parents and children! Having your child there and seeing what summer camp will be like is an excellent way to get them excited for camp. It also allows for both you and your child to ask any questions you might have. This can help to ease both your mind and your child’s.
2. Get your child involved in the preparation stages. If this is your child’s first time at camp, there will probably be some things you need to buy in order to adequately prepare them. Bring your child with you when you purchase these items and allow them to choose what colour lunchbox they would like or what sleeping bag looks coziest! Having them involved in the preparation process will begin to build their excitement and they can begin to mentally prepare for camp.
3. Help your child learn to be a bit more independent. At many overnight camps there is a “cabin clean up” aspect. The children are responsible for things like making their own bed and sweeping the cabin. Having them do these types of chores at home is excellent preparation for what they will encounter at camp. As well, if this is your child’s first experience at an overnight camp it may be beneficial to organize a few sleepovers in the months leading up to summer camp so they are familiar with being away from home.
4. Read the Parent/Camper Manual! In the months leading up to summer, many camps will send out a manual that includes things like a packing list, a daily schedule, maps, allergy and food policies and other information necessary for helping you and your child get ready for camp. These are all so important! Usually, most questions parents ask me are answered in the handbook. Having more information about the summer camp experience will make going to camp much more comfortable instead of it being a world of unknowns.
5. If you have other questions, please ask! Our job is ensuring your child has the best experience possible at summer camp. If you have other questions – just ask! Most camps are accessible during the year by phone or email and can answer all of your questions. There is also the option to visit the camp ahead of summer; this can help both you and your child familiarize yourselves with camp. Again, all you have to do is ask.
6. Talk about camp in a positive way. Talk about all the summer activities for kids and all the new experiences they will have at camp. It’s completely normal to be nervous (both for the camper and parents!) but encourage positive talk as much as possible. One of the biggest issues we come across is when parents say, “If you aren’t having fun/don’t like it, you can come home.” This can really set your child up for having a negative experience. On the first day, most kids are nervous and maybe even a little homesick. If they know they have the option to go home, that’s what they will want to do. It can unfortunately turn something that can be a really positive experience into a negative one.
7. Be honest when filling out all camp forms. Just like having information helps both you and your child to prepare for camp, it helps counsellors prepare for camp too. When camps have more information, we’re better able to prepare for your children. If your child suffers from anxiety, we will be able to provide them with some extra care and comfort to make the adjustment period easier. However, if we don’t have that information, it can be much more difficult for the counselling staff to help.
Preparing for summer camp can seem overwhelming, especially for a first time camper, but it doesn’t have to be. The most important thing to do if you feel overwhelmed is to ask for help. Speak to other parents about their experiences with sending their kids to summer camp. Call the camp and ask questions.
Summer camp is an amazing experience to try new activities, make new friends and inspire self-confidence. It may seem scary, but your child will gain so much and you will be so happy they went.
Hilary Szwalek is the Assistant Camp Director at Camp Muskoka in Bracebridge, Ontario. She is a graduate of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Brock University and holds a diploma in Recreation and Leisure Services from Mohawk College. She grew up spending almost every week of her summer vacations camping, hiking, and portaging in some of Canada's most beautiful Provincial and National Parks. In her downtime, she can be found attempting to master some DIY crafts (though not always successfully!) and travelling the world!
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