Summer Camp Ready: 20 Tips for Kids and Parents
Who’s more ready for summer camp? Your kids? You and other parents? Perhaps you recall your own summer camp memories. Maybe a younger child is ready to finally go to summer camp like his or her older siblings. Or this year may be the first time you are sending a child to summer camp.
Every summer, millions of American children attend one of thousands of day and overnight camps. There are camps to fit almost every interest area – sports, STEM, music, Scouting, religion, language study, theater – just to name a few. The benefits of summer camp experiences are wide reaching, according to the American Camp Association.
As a child and teenager, I attended camps for Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls and others with my church youth group and high school cheerleading squads. Because I enjoyed my summer camp experiences so much, I was excited for my own children to have similar experiences.
My daughter Rachael started attending Girl Scout overnight summer camp at age 8. She loved it and wanted to return every summer. She completed counselor-in-training sessions as a teenager, so she could become a camp counselor, which she did throughout her college years. Now, working as a schoolteacher with available summers, Rachael has been able to continue working at camps for the last three years. This summer she will be the assistant camp director for a Girl Scout camp in Massachusetts.
Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: First-time camper Rachael in her platform tent. / Photo 2: Rachael outside an A-frame cabin that she slept in during her second summer camp year. / Photo 3: Rachael posing with the camp sign. / Photo 4: Camp counselor Rachael in a canoe at a Girl Scout camp near St. Louis, Mo.
My son Ryan attended a couple soccer skills camps as a kid. Then after joining the Boy Scouts when he was 11 years old, he attended different Scout camps each summer with his troop until he aged out of Scouting at 18. Wanting to give back to younger Scouts, Ryan decided to work as a counselor and Scoutcraft director at a Boy Scout camp in Missouri for the last two summers.
Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Ryan with a friend at the early morning summer camp send-off for their Boy Scout troop. / Photo 2: Ryan cooking French toast for his troopmates at summer camp a few years later. / Photo 3: Counselor/Scoutcraft director Ryan at a Boy Scout camp south of St. Louis, Mo.
Despite my experience with summer camps – as a camper and a parent of campers – I do remember being nervous the first time each of my kids went to their first summer camps. But I drew from my own camper memories, paid attention to camp information, and talked to other parents who had prepared to send their children to camp in previous years.
Let me share the tips I think can help kids and parents easily become “summer camp ready” and get the most out of the summer camp experience.
Note: While the tips below are predominantly appropriate for overnight/residential camps, many can be applied or tweaked for day camps.
Pack for Camp Like a Pro
Use the provided packing list. This tip might be a bit obvious, but the provided packing list often includes some items you might not have thought of. Also, there may be notes about items that are not allowed at camp. I have also found suggestions for substitutable items, such as a fitted sheet and blanket instead of a sleeping bag. If your child doesn’t have a sleeping bag, then it’s not necessary to buy one for a summer camp session. If there are specific activities included in the camp session, such as horseback riding or tie dye crafts project, then your child may need appropriate gear or supplies, such as shoes with a heel that will work in horse stirrups or a pre-washed cotton T-shirt.
Have your camper help with packing. It may seem easier to pack for your child, especially if they are younger, but having kids help with packing gets them familiar with what is packed and where they can find it in a duffel bag or backpack. It can help them remember to bring everything back home, too. In fact, you could send the packing list with them, so they can use it when repacking at the end of the camp session. I often asked my kids to be responsible for checking off items on the packing list as we packed together. They can also have a say in which clothing items they want to take (and you can agree, veto or negotiate, as needed).
Organize clothes by day. When Ryan was getting ready for his first Boy Scout summer camp, another Scout mom recommended using gallon-sized zip-top bags to organize each day’s clothing items – underwear, socks, shirt, and shorts. Since he was taking a large backpack for his gear, these clothing bags made it easier for Ryan to find everything to wear each day. The bags can double as laundry bags for dirty clothes – but let’s be real, did I really think he would be that tidy with his dirty clothes while sharing a tent with other troop members?
Label clothes and other belongings. This perennial tip is still a good one. Since kids often live in shared spaces during camp sessions, it’s so easy for clothes to get mixed up or left behind in a bathroom. But labeling clothes isn’t as easy now that many of them no longer have a tag that’s easy to write a name on. If you use a marker to write on the inside of a clothing item, the ink will often bleed through to the front. Here are a couple options: Order iron-on labels printed with your child’s name, use a fabric marker (test first for how much the ink bleeds) in an inconspicuous part of the clothing, or stitch an X with colored thread on an inside waistband or hem. For non-clothing items, make sure your labeling is permanent enough to withstand water, sweat, and sunscreen.
Prepare in advance for letters and care packages. If your child might enjoy a letter or care package from you, check with camp staff in advance for what’s allowed or if mailed items typically arrive in time to be distributed to your camper. For some of the camps that my kids attended, I could bring my letters with a delivery date noted on the envelopes, and then the staff would distribute them on the appropriate day. You can usually slip these envelopes to a staff member during check-in. Another option is to tuck in a letter in your camper’s duffel bag or backpack. Then he or she can discover it later and enjoy a nice surprise from you. If your camper wants to write to you or others while at camp, I suggest putting together some pre-addressed and stamped envelopes, stationary paper or cards, and a pen. To be honest, campers may not have time for writing to anyone, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared anyway. Just don’t make a big deal about not receiving a letter; it just means your camper was having too much fun.
Make Check-in and Check-out Stress Free
Be on time for drop-offs and pick-ups. Be sure you understand the schedule times for check-in and check-out. There may be specific times by camper name, age level, or camp unit or session to prevent traffic bottlenecks and minimize waiting times to go through check-in processes. It’s also important to arrive on time for pick-ups, as camp staff will have to stay late if parents or guardians don’t show up on time. Plus, your camper won’t be thrilled to be the last one picked up. If you are legitimately delayed, be sure to communicate with camp staff.
Ensure you bring all the required forms. As soon as I received the camp paperwork packet, I checked it for the forms that needed to be completed – typically health forms, emergency contacts, permission/consent forms for specific activities, and other general information about the camper. You may need to make a doctor’s appointment or sign up for a health check at a local pharmacy. I also looked for questions about my camper’s likes/dislikes, temperament, and comfort level about attending camp. I knew camp counselors and staff can use this information to better interact with my kid.
Confirm if your camper needs money for snacks or camp memorabilia. Some camps have trading posts, small shops, concession stands or vending machines, so it’s a good idea to check in advance about these services, how often campers can buy items, and how much snacks or other items cost. Then discuss a budget with your camper. I also recommended that my kids buy something special to remember the camp session – a patch, t shirt, or hat – but leave the junkier stuff there since it didn’t usually last long at home before it broke or was ignored. It’s also key to work with your camper ahead of time about keeping their money safe. Some camps will allow you to set up an account with money that you provide, but often the camper must hold onto their own money. Finding a safe place in their duffel bag or backpack is a good idea to figure out together with your child.
Help your camper settle in and start to meet other campers. Depending on your camper’s age, he or she may or may not want you to be involved with helping them settle in. For an older child, he or she may permit you to carry some of their gear to a tent, cabin, or lodge but not help with unpacking. Respect their wishes, of course, even if you feel a bit rebuffed. Take it from me, your camper is usually just feeling more confident and grown up. You can also help start some introductions between campers, if they don’t already know each other. Sometimes it’s easier to speak with other parents, but you can also ask other campers for their names and how many years they have attended this camp.
Keep goodbyes cheerful, not tearful. No matter what you may be feeling inside, it’s important to make the goodbye hugs as positive as possible – especially if your camper is feeling nervous about camp or sad to see you leave. I avoided any talk about missing my kids when they were at camp – even though I would and did. Instead, I focused on being excited about what they would be experiencing and all the fun they would be having. I might have even admitted to being a little envious that I couldn’t stay at camp and have fun, too. I made sure they knew I couldn’t wait to hear about their camp adventures, which usually came pouring out on the way home at the end of the sessions.
Encourage Your Camper to Get Involved
Prompt your camper to say hi to other campers and ask their names. Whether you get the ball rolling with introductions or coach your kid to do so, it’s always helpful when someone is willing to get to know the other campers. Of course, the counselors will also facilitate “get-to-know-you” activities at the beginning of the camp session, but there can be some downtime during check-in until all campers arrive. Why not help to make your camper and others start to feel more comfortable with each other.
Remind your camper to ask questions to get to know others. Teaching rapport-setting skills can start at any age. Often, younger children will focus only on themselves, but you can teach them how to ask questions to get to know others and then how they can share something about themselves afterwards. You could practice this skill at home before the camp session starts.
Promote a willing attitude to try new activities. One of the best parts of the summer camp experience is doing some new things –learning a skit to perform or walking across a rope bridge, for example – so it’s key if your camper feels confident enough to push himself or herself a bit. If your child might be timid or resistant to trying new activities, it may be helpful to talk about these situations beforehand, so your camper has time to think about how to be more adventuresome or open minded. Can your camper try to imagine how he or she will feel after accomplishing something new? Ultimately, it’s about trying to get the most out of the summer camp experience – and, of course, that experience will be at least a little different for each camper.
Discuss how camp isn’t like home or school. This tip can be a biggie if your child is challenged by new situations or changes in routine. Maybe your child is a picky eater or doesn’t like to get out of bed until late morning. There will be aspects of summer camp that differ from what is familiar to campers at home or in school. Take time to talk with your child about possible differences and ways to approach them. Sometimes if the camper can maintain a positive mindset about any differences at summer camp, he or she can just figure out a good way to deal with them without getting upset or feeling homesick.
Capture Camp Memories
Check if the camp posts photos online for parents. With the prevalence of social media, many camps have groups and accounts where they post photos from camp sessions. As a parent or guardian, you can join these groups and check for posts of camp activities throughout the session. Depending on the camp’s internet connectivity and/or its size, you may need to be patient for photos of your camper. At one of the Girl Scout camps where my daughter worked on staff, I even checked out the posts daily to see if I could spot my favorite counselor.
Take photos at check-in and check-out. When I attended camps as a girl and teenager, I usually brought some disposable film cameras. If cell phones aren’t allowed, then your camper may not have an opportunity to take photos during the camp session. That’s why I always took photos at check-in and check-out times. I could get a photo of my daughter next to her bed in her tent or with a friend if they were attending together. Another must-take photo was my camper with the camp sign – even of my son when he was a counselor at a Boy Scout camp for two summers. If you have time, you can also get photos of some locations around the camp – a dining hall, the swimming pool, or a lake view, for example.
Ask your camper to write down a couple details about each day. This tip may be met with groans from your camper, but you could ask them to make a brief notation in a notebook about what happened that day – such as, rode a horse named Pancho, made a volcano model, or scored two soccer goals. Tell them it will help them better remember the details about each day.
Help your child make a camp photo album or scrapbook. After your child is home from camp, it can be fun to make a photo album or scrapbook of their camp memories. It can be as simple or elaborate as your child wants. Photos you took and ones downloaded from the camp’s social media page can be paired with short journaling or captions by your child. When my kids were attending camps, I was an avid scrapbooker, so I created pages of these experiences. In looking back, I would have enjoyed having each of them create their own photo albums or scrapbooks.
Stay Connected with Camp Friends
Remind your camper to ask for camp friends’ addresses, emails and phone numbers. Your camper may make some new friends and want to stay in touch through texting, calling, emailing, or writing letters. Pack a notebook and pen, so your camper can gather this information. Make sure they know their own contact information (or write it down for them in the notebook), so they can give it to their new friends. Starting to build a friend network outside of their neighborhood or school can be a fun way to continue to share common interests, such as scouting, sports, or science. Perhaps the group of new friends can even get together a few times throughout the year.
Discuss whether to sign up for a camp session next year with some camp friends. One summer Rachael became good friends with another camper (whose camp name is Tad) at a Girl Scout camp. They decided to sign up for the same camp session the following summer, so they could be tentmates again. So, I coordinated with Tad’s mom to pick a camp session that worked for both families’ schedules. Chicago (Rachael’s camp name) and Tad are still friends as adults after spending many summer camp sessions together and even working as counselors for the same Girl Scout camp. If your camper bonds with other campers in a similar way, I recommend getting them back together in future summer camp sessions.
Slideshow: Click arrows to advance photos. Photo 1: Campers Tad and Chicago (their camp names) became good friends at summer camp. / Photo 2: The duo back together during one of the many years they attended the same summer camp session. / Photo 3: Not wanting to leave camp, they tied themselves together at the end of their counselor-in-training session. / Photo 4: Tad and Chicago worked together as camp counselors for a couple years.
What other tips do you have for making summer camp an awesome experience? Share them below in the comments.