photo courtesey of Camp Oneka.

It’s the First-Time Camper Tug-of-War

by Ellen Warren

43 days, 8 hours, 17 minutes, 26 seconds! Countdown clocks are a favorite feature of summer camp websites. As the numbers go down, excitement rises.

For first-time camp families, this countdown can trigger mixed emotions. A child can be excited one day and anxious the next. Parents of new campers can send mixed signals, too — “You’ll have such a good time at camp!” “I’ll miss you so much.”

Clinical psychologist Christopher A. Thurber, PhD, co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook, suggests three tactics for first-time camp families: Learn as much as you can about the camp before it begins, talk to other parents and campers, and discuss coping solutions for anxiety and other problems before camp starts.

Many camps, such as Tall Pines Day Camp in Williamstown, NJ, make it easy to learn about daily camp life by posting a typical schedule on their websites. Tall Pines also offers open houses in the spring so new campers can become familiar with the facility and the staff.

Talk Beforehand
“Go to an open house, take a tour with the child and meet the director and some of the staff,” advises Tall Pines owner Andrew Yankowitz. “Then, when camp starts, the child sees familiar faces who even know her name. It’s very welcoming.”

A few weeks before camp begins, Yankowitz has senior counselors call every camp parent. Sometimes the new camper will also get on the phone, helping to reduce anxiety.

Camp Oneka, a girls’ overnight camp in the Poconos mails a camp preview before camp begins that includes a section called What Happens When I Get to Camp? “Knowing what to expect can reduce first-day jitters. An advance description of the first day answers questions like ‘Where will I go?’ and ‘What will I do?’” says co-director Barbara Dohner.

Camp directors can also ease anxiety about activities and participation — will a child who hates baseball have to play, or can he elect to spend that period at the nature cabin? Who does a child talk to when she doesn’t feel well? Children who understands that there are many adults at camp to help them will feel more secure and willing to accept new challenges.

The Handwork Studio, LLC, which runs three 11-week needle arts and fashion day camps for ages 5-17 on Pennsylvania’s Main Line, offers families the choice of a 2-, 4-, or 6-hour camp day to help first-timers get adjusted. Director Laura Kelly says that the shorter day lets new campers “test the waters” before committing to a longer camp experience.

Expect Homesickness
The American Camp Association (ACA) reports that about 95 percent of all campers experience some degree of homesickness. To combat those feelings, Mark Scott, assistant executive director of Camp Ladore, a weekly overnight camp operated by The Salvation Army in the Moosic Mountains of northwestern PA, recommends sending a child to camp with a special keepsake.

“A small and inexpensive memento of home can be a focal point for a child experiencing some pangs of homesickness,” says Scott. “It could be as simple as a photograph, or a small stuffed animal, or even a rock from the garden. Teach the child to look at it for a few minutes, think about home in a positive way, then put it away and get back to camp activities. Keeping busy at camp is the best way to keep homesick feelings away.”

By talking to other experienced campers who have overcome homesick feelings, kids learn that it’s okay to feel that way sometimes. Homesickness usually goes away in the first three to four days of camp.

Micheal Mummert, director of Spark the Wave, a week-long community service camp for teens held at Villanova University, adds that setting short-term goals, such as “let’s see how you feel tomorrow morning,” can get kids through a few days of separation anxiety.

Children can practice dealing with the feeling of separation by spending a night, and then a weekend, away from home at a friend’s or relative’s house. To best simulate a camp experience, call an adult if you must, but don’t communicate with your child by phone, e-mail or text messages. Most camps don’t allow cell phones or e-mail correspondence.

Practice Independence
At Camp Shehaqua, a weekly 4-H camp in Hickory Run State Park, PA, there are no electronics allowed. There is also no electricity. Helaine Brown, who runs the 4-H youth development camp program, explains this at a pre-camp orientation session. Brown suggests that children practice sleeping in a sleeping bag, in the dark, before they come to camp. She also tells parents to make sure that children have independent living and personal hygiene skills.

Experts agree that you should never make deals with your children about coming home early, whether from a day or overnight camp. Deals backfire make children focus on going home instead of being successful at camp. They also send a negative message that parents don’t think the child is capable of making it through.

ACA’s Keystone Section president Cheryl Magen says, “Most children thrive in a nurturing camp environment, so helping a child anticipate the fun and friendships to come is the best thing parents can do to ensure a positive camp experience.”

Ellen Warren writes for the American Camp Association Keystone Section, which serves camps and camp families in Pennsylvania and Delaware.