To Camp or Not To Camp: Day Camp, Overnight Camp, or No Camp?

Kids sitting on a tree branch at summer camp.

During a particularly long and cold winter, I decided it was time to send my 2 older kids to summer camp. They were 9 and 11 at the time, and I reasoned that they were ready, right? They had been on a few teams, stayed overnight with friends, and would participate in a few household chores under extreme duress (or appropriate bribes). Plus, camp for the older two would give me some one on one time with my youngest child who seemed to be relegated to the life of whatever the older two were doing. And they were about to drive me nuts with all this winter indoor time. It was time.

One of our pastors suggested a sports camp, and so our research was minimal, and we put them on the list for a 2 week session starting in June. As the months flew by, it soon was time to pay the final installment of the fees (gulp) and begin to cobble together some of the thousands of things they would need for camp. OK, not thousands, but it seemed like that when it is for two children.

  • Rain jacket: check.
  • Sleeping bag: check.
  • Flashlight, dozen socks, water shoes: check, check, check.

The day came for camp, and the van overflowed with “camp necessities,” making us look like 21st century Beverly Hillbillies. We arrived at the beautiful wooded seclusion of camp and each child was shown to their cabin by their counselors, who were friendly and welcoming. So far, so good. But as I looked around the quaint (read: tiny) rustic cabin, I casually asked a counselor about bathrooms. The young college student quickly understood my quizzical look, and pointed to another rustic building 100 yards away. I think I gasped at the thought of my dearly beloveds walking there in the middle of the night, tripping over tree roots and who knows what. The counselor assured me that ALL the campers and counselors used the central bathroom and showers. OK, I thought. Breathe, and the kids will never know I’m worried.

Once the kids were settled in the cabin, parents were invited to look around the camp and have a glimpse of some of the activities. As we neared the lake, I saw my kids run toward a 50 foot tower that looked like it was constructed of rejected lumber from the Civil War. From the top of the tower was a water slide that looked like an old log run, spilling it’s contents into the lake. Kids were careening down the slide on boogie boards that then bounced across the lake like skipping rocks. Laughter and screams of joy regularly greeted the parents nearby, some of us nervous and some jealous. Sooner than we wanted, it was time for parents to go. Leave. Adios.

The two weeks went quickly, and pick-up day was both joyful and somber. The kids had to say goodbye to their new friends and memorable experiences, but they were happy to see us, also. The ride home was full of songs, stories, adventures, and (I swear) counting down the days until next summer’s camp session.

The next few days were spent unpacking and cleaning the camp gear, hearing more about camp as the kids remembered, and even incorporating a few camp traditions into our own home (at the dinner table, “offer left, pass right”). As a parent, I was happy and also relieved, and making my own notes for next year: never send new white socks to camp….

So as you deal with the rain, snow, and cold weather of winter, maybe you are beginning to think of the glimmer of summer… and the big question: is MY child ready for camp?

Day camp?

Sleep away camp??

Here are few things that may help you decide if camp is right for your child, and how to pick the right camp for your child.

Day Camp

Day camp could be a great choice for younger children who may not be ready for an overnight experience. There are about as many types of day camps as there are children! In many areas, there will be camps for music, art, dance, science, nature, technology, sports, cooking, equestrian, theater, literature – the list seems endless. Most of these are organized in weekly session format, either half day or full day. Camps are run by individuals, private organizations, churches, city/county governments, and schools. Parents are sometimes influenced by friends or neighbors about camps and activities, and of course you are interested in the reputation of the camp. But the questions and ultimate decision need to begin with your child and you.

  • What are my child’s interests?
  • Is my child able to stay engaged for a full day or is half day better?
  • Is it important that other friends will be at the same camp?
  • What can my budget afford?
  • How will transportation to and from camp impact the family?

As the parent, you can prioritize these questions. For example, if you feel it is most important that your child and a friend share the same camp, then begin a conversation with the friend’s parent. If budget is the main concern, start your search with that in mind. Many religious organizations offer free or very low cost day camps (such as Vacation Bible School) that do not require congregational membership. As children grow older and develop interests, they may like being involved in the planning and choosing of the camp. Transportation can be complicated, especially if you have more than one child attending a camp during the same week. Plan ahead for possible carpooling, and think about your proximity to the camp as well as how your transportation to and from camp will affect timing for naps and other family activities.

Overnight/Sleep Away Camp

Many children would enjoy being actively involved in choosing their camp, and can help with the internet search and discussion. Overnight camps also come in many varieties, and the quintessential ‘summer camp’ has expanded to include many specific interest areas similar to the day camps.

There are also camps devoted to children with certain diseases or medical conditions.

Overnight camps will have a minimum age requirement, usually 8 years old or 3rd grade. Most overnight camps are organized in weekly sessions, with some offering multiple week options. Some camps have set 12-14 day (or even 3-4 weeks) sessions, and some allow ‘rolling enrollment’ so that the child may attend any or all of the weeks.

Overnight camps might be run by a private organization/family, churches, schools, or government agency. The price will vary greatly, and so your budget planning should take this into account. But one of the biggest questions that parents face is this: how will my child do at overnight camp? Will they be able to deal with a week or more of being away from home? Here are a few questions for discussion that might help you come to an answer.

  • Has your child had experiences staying overnight with others (sleepovers) with friends and/or family?
  • For the younger child, is your child well adjusted to an all day school schedule?
  • Does your child make friends easily?
  • How has your child done with group experiences such as team activities or day camps?
  • Is your child able to follow directions from an adult/leader?
  • Does the camp’s focus dovetail with your child’s interests?
  • Does your child want to go?

For practical information on summer camp, see my Summer Camp FAQ.

Sheana Whelan Funkhouser RN PhD

Dr. Sheana Whelan Funkhouser is a self described ‘nurse mom’ who is known for her down-to-earth advice and practical approach to health and healthy living. Sheana spends time volunteering at the animal shelter, church office, and at a health clinic serving medically vulnerable community members.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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