Sleepaway camps have many potential benefits. Perhaps the most obvious benefit is the opportunity to participate in new activities or further develop skills in an area of interest. But the real benefits of overnight camp go far beyond the obvious. Spending time away from parents gives children the chance to make choices on their own, which increases independence, enhances self-concept, and helps develop responsibility for one’s choices and actions.
Many of the children I see today are overscheduled and have very little free time. What free time they do have is often filled with electronics—iPods, iPads, videogames, television, Facebook and other social networking sites, etc. The list goes on and on. Kids don’t just go outside and play anymore. When they do play outside, it’s usually in a structured activity overseen by adults. Camp gives kids the chance to get away from all of this. They learn how to fill their free time without electronics, how to interact with other people instead of with a screen, and how to solve problems without adults telling them the answers. They get to play and be creative in less structured ways.
The social aspect may be the most important benefit of overnight camps, especially in this digital age. Not only in terms of increasing face-to-face interaction, but also learning how to share and compromise. Many kids these days have never had to share a bedroom or a bathroom with someone else. The group living environment of camps forces kids to learn these skills in a way that a daycamp simply doesn’t. The social skills learned in this setting—sharing, compromise, problem-solving, dealing with people you don’t particularly like—have life-long benefits. People who master these skills tend to have better self-concept and to be more successful. As an added benefit, they may forge life-long friendships.
Some kids are eager to go to sleepaway camp, while others are more reluctant. For children who are more reluctant, there are several strategies that may help. First, it’s important for parents to present camp as a great opportunity for their child; if parents are apprehensive, kids will pick up on that and feel apprehensive as well. If you or someone else close to your child went to camp, share your positive experiences in a way that makes camp sound fun and exciting. It can help to involve your kids in the process of picking a camp that they think they would enjoy and having conversations with them about which activities at that camp they are most excited to try. Some kids may feel more comfortable going to camp with a friend or sibling for the first time. If your child enjoys sleepovers, draw a comparison between camp and a long sleepover.
It’s also important for kids to know that it’s okay to miss home and to still have fun at camp. I would encourage parents to make a list with their kids of things they can do to feel better if they’re feeling homesick. The list may include things such as writing a letter home, talking to someone at camp about their feelings, making an art project to share with parents when they go home, looking at a picture of the family that you can send with them, playing with their new friends, and finding a fun activity to do. You can also promise to write to them so they have letters to look forward to.
Leaving early can reinforce anxiety about being away from home, so try not to make it an option. Instead, you may want to start with a shorter time commitment with the opportunity to add more time at the end if the child wants to stay longer.
Dr. Ehrin Weiss is a Houston-based Clinical Psychologist specializing in Family Psychology.