Overnight Camp: Is Your Child Ready?

Kathy Lynn Gray
Marshall (left) and Caroline Schiele (right) are veterans of overnight camp. Younger sister Sarah will join them this summer.

Overnight camp always was a magical place for Charles Schiele. So it's no surprise that the Powell dad and his wife, Carrie, wanted their three kids to experience the same adventure.

First up was Marshall, now 13, who went to his first overnight camp when he was 8 or 9. Last year, their middle daughter, Caroline, joined him at age 10. This year, 7-year-old Sarah will attend. “They're in a safe place, a world of adventure, and the best part is that the parents aren't there,” Schiele said. “Who knows what kind of a direction this could take them in life?”

However, not all parents are as confident as Schiele about the benefits of overnight camp—or their children's readiness for one. “The main purpose of overnight camp is growing up,” said Dave Devey, director and owner of Falcon Camp in Carrollton, where the Schiele children have gone. “You're learning baby steps of independence and learning how to accept responsibility.”

To do well in that environment, kids need to have mastered certain skills, such as tying their shoes, brushing their hair, telling time to some extent and choosing food they like at mealtimes. “There's no set age,” Devey said. “There are 6-year-olds who are quite ready and 9-year-olds who aren't. One of the hardest things is knowing if parents are ready, because we find more and more that kids are ready but the parents aren't ready to give them up.”

Schiele said he let his kids decide when they were ready for camp, and each chose a different age based on their personalities and confidence levels.

One important readiness gauge, said Becky Bringardner, curriculum and evening programs director for the Be Wise STEM camp held at Denison University, is how comfortable a child is staying overnight at someone else's house. First, have them stay with relatives, and then with friends, she said.

Trying day camp first is another option, Devey said, so children can acclimate to the routine, socialization and environment of a camp. Some operators offer short overnight stays, such as Camp Molly Lauman, where the Girl Scouts of Ohio's Heartland Council operates two-night outings for first-timers in addition to the standard one-week sessions. Falcon Camp, whose traditional sessions are two weeks, offers a weeklong camp for younger children.

Once you've decided your child is ready for overnight camp, it's time to choose one. Many parents opt for traditional programs with a variety of activities. Devey said that's usually a good option, especially for a first-time camper.

Bringardner said the best choice depends on a child's interests. “You've got to know your child and give them input,” she said. “If they're interested in sports, send them to a sports camp.”

Not sure where to start the search? In addition to utilizing theColumbus Parent Summer Camp Guide, parents can explore the American Camp Association database at find.acacamps.org.

Parents can increase their child's success at overnight camp by talking about what a great experience it will be and not dwelling on how much they're going to miss them, Devey said. “Don't ever tell them you'll come get them if they're not having fun,” he said. “You're just giving them an out.”

Bringardner said parents shouldn't let children know they're nervous about their child attending camp. “Be positive and talk about the fun things you did at that age at camp,” she said. “And don't ever mention that you were homesick.”

Once a child is at camp, send them snail mail or, if the camp permits, an occasional email, said Erin Feinour, camp director for the Girl Scouts of Ohio's Heartland Council. “Another idea is to hide a note or a little gift in her bag that she'll find at camp,” she said.

Telephone calls are discouraged, and most camps don't allow phones. “Phone calls are a disaster,” Devey said. “There is not a child alive who isn't a bit homesick after they talk to a parent on the phone.”

Schiele warned parents not to expect many letters or emails from their camper. “The No. 1 thing is they're establishing independence,” he said. “You're giving your child the opportunity to create a pattern of success, and as soon as they're on their own two feet, all the outcomes are 100 percent theirs.”