Camp can be a life-changing experience. Kids make new friends, participate in a broad range of activities, and develop independence, confidence, and skills relevant to home, school, and social settings.

But how do parents know whether their children are ready for camp? What are the factors to consider, and what conversations should take place between camp and home to determine whether this is the summer for a child to venture into a residential camp experience?

Andy Lilienthal, director of Camp Winnebago, a boys’ camp in Fayette, said that there are several considerations in making such an evaluation.

First, is a child able to be away from home overnight? Lilienthal cited child experts, who assert that “if a child can be away for one night, they can be away for many nights.” Other factors play a role, too. For example, parents should understand that kids grasp parents’ “emotional level” regarding the camp question.

“If parents come into the prospect feeling ambivalent, kids will pick up on that,” he said.

Lilienthal said he also talks to parents about whether their kids learn from mistakes and move on. That ability “shows a level of maturity” that will allow a boy to get the most from the camp experience.

“So much of camp is about learning and evolving,” he said. “If they don’t have the emotional wherewithal to be there, it could create roadblocks.” Other factors are whether the child really wants to go, and what the family’s goals are for the camp experience, Lilienthal said.

One question to ask is whether the child is “willing to try a lot of different things,” because that is the culture of the camp, Lilienthal said.

Parents can affect their children’s readiness for camp by partnering with them, he said: “The more help you can give the child in terms of preparing emotionally, the more successful they will be.”

The issue of homesickness is not necessarily a “barrier to entry,” he said.

Louise Fritts Johnson, director of Camp Arcadia, a girls’ camp on Pleasant Lake in Otisfield, agreed that the question of homesickness isn’t necessarily a litmus test for a child’s readiness.

Transition times can be difficult, she said. “It doesn’t mean camp’s not the right thing,” she said. “It means mom and child have set up a great environment.”

Johnson said one helpful way of gauging a girl’s readiness is for a parent to observe the girl as she watches the camp’s informational video. The parent may see excitement and enthusiasm, or may see panic. It’s also helpful to consider whether the child has had separation from the parents, and the nature of those separations, she said.

Johnson said she had four 7-year-olds enrolled at Camp Arcadia last summer, and all did very well. One of the girls stayed the full seven-week session.

Mary Ellen Deschenes, Chief of Outdoor Operations at Girl Scouts of Maine, said whether a girl has slept away from home is a factor in evaluating whether she is ready to attend Camp Natarswi (in Millinocket) or Camp Pondicherry (Bridgton). Both camps consist of one-week sessions. Deschenes said one baseline question is whether the girl is excited to attend.

She acknowledged that sometimes the parent presents the reluctant party, and if the parent is “child-sick, rather than the other way around,” camp personnel can “allay their concerns.”

The camp experience gives girls as young as 7 the chance to “learn some independence, and be with other adults as mentors and guides,” Deschenes said. Last summer about 560 girls attended Girl Scout camp, she said. Girls do not need to be members of Girl Scout troops to register.

At Camp Wawenock, a girls’ camp in Raymond, girls can attend a one-week introductory session at ages 6, 7 and 8, said Director Catriona Sangster, and the camp also offers a 3½-week session for girls aged 7, 8 and 9. Girls entering grade 4 and up attend the full seven-week session.

“One great indicator” of a child’s readiness is whether she has ever slept away from home, said Sangster. It is important to remember, too, that adults and children have very different concepts of time, she said.

“Time away from home is kind of irrelevant to a child as long as they feel at home where they are,” Sangster said. “That’s our focus for the first week of the full season or the first days of the introductory program.”

Giving girls a feeling of belonging will help ensure their success, she said.

In fact, Sangster said, focusing on how long a child is away from home is “a parent issue, not a child issue.” By focusing on what each day will be like, kids are living in the moment. For example, girls who are 8 or 9 “do great,” she said. “They have no concept of time, and love structure. Once they get the structure, and figure out what to do when, and how to do it, it’s like clockwork.”

Sangster said girls can also prepare for camp by interacting with her prior to arriving. “I can have a little more rapport with her, and can see what is motivating her.”

Camp Wawenock sends a letter to families each spring with tips for preparing for camp, Sangster said. In addition, she said, technology helps. Skype conversations allow Sangster to observe the body language of prospective campers.

Camps across Maine are in full swing reaching out to families in preparation for the summer of 2018. And families are starting to think about how kids will spend their summer months.

Whether a child considers a single week of camp, or an entire season, the opportunities can be life-changing. Through thorough collaboration – both in person and via technology – camp directors and families are poised to plan exciting and adventuresome summers for kids of all ages.

 

KRISTINE SNOW MILLARD, a free-lance writer from Portland, co-edited “The Art of Outdoor Living,” a guidebook used for Junior Maine Guide candidates; is a regular contributor to the Maine Summer Camps newsletter and website, mainecamps.org; and has contributed to the American Camp Association New England newsletter. She is also a regular volunteer at The Telling Room, a non-profit youth writing center in Portland.