You have researched. You have visited. You have interviewed camp directors, fellow parents and friends. You have involved your children and you have found an excellent summer camp or camps for the kids to enjoy this summer. (And if you haven’t, know that crunch time is here and visit LAParent.com/camp to read up on all these things.)
With less than a month to go until the schools release your children for summer adventure, it is time to gear up. Fortunately, some savvy local camp directors have weighed in to help me cover the basics of what you’ll need in hand before that first day.
On the Right Foot
Starting at the bottom, the right shoes are a camp essential. Safety should be your first concern. “Shoes should be a good pair of athletic shoes that can be worn for a variety of activities, such as running, hiking, kicking balls, climbing mountains, etc.,” says Kassandra Wilsey, mom of three and director of Cali Camp in Topanga. The camp welcomes ages 3-15 from June 12-Aug. 11 this year and hosts all of these activities plus creative arts.
Despite the summer heat, avoid open-toed shoes and put your child in thin socks made of breathable fabric to help keep feet cool and dry. If you must send your child in sandals, Summer Art Academy Director Elizabeth Paravicini suggests packing tennis shoes for extra protection during activities such as fencing, woodworking or cooking. And Christina Conte, theater/yoga teacher at Yoga House in Pasadena, suggests a pair of flip-flops for the car ride at the end of a long camp day.
“The worst thing I’ve seen at camp is when parents send their kids in high heels or Crocs,” says Cheryl Appleman, founder and president of Performing Arts Workshop in Marina del Rey. If your child is fashion conscious, she advises finding a flat shoe with style.
Consider this recommendation from Camp Coordinator Morgan Pladys of Lycee International de Los Angeles: “During last year’s camp, we noticed that Native brand shoes were a big parent and camper favorite. Rubber, washable, breathable, sturdy and fashionable!”
Clothes Make the Camper
Next up: clothes. “The key here is to go for layers,” says Conte. “Mornings are cool, so provide sweatshirts and stretchy pants. Down vests are easily put into backpacks as the day heats up. Think of cotton because it’s easily washable and comfortable during a day of movement and play. Extra socks are nice just in case sand or water are involved in the activity.”
At Summer Art Academy, which offers a variety of camps for ages 5-16 at several Southern California locations, students work with paint and other materials and have water activities. Paravicini advises sending campers in clothes they don’t mind getting dirty. That includes an extra shirt for painting, swimsuits or clothes for water play and a bag for wet clothes. “Ziploc bags work amazingly well, because we can write the camper’s name on it and it’s easy to see,” Paravicini says.
Summer Art Academy also does overnights, and Paravicini reminds parents to pack extra underwear in case of accidents. “To be extra organized for the younger kids, pack their clothes in gallon-size zip-lock bags,” she says, adding that you can mark each day (Day 1, Day 2) with a Sharpie so that kids don’t have to shuffle through their whole suitcase to get dressed. She also recommends checking with camp directors about limits to how much luggage a camper can bring.
Wilsey reminds parents that jeans and sweaters can often be worn more than once. “But don’t fret,” she adds. “Some kids will go their whole camp week in the same clothes!” The exception is bathing suits. Pack two so your child always has a dry suit ready.
Fend Off Snack Attacks
If your child will attend day camp, you’ll likely be asked to provide a daily lunch – and a snack. There are four important things to consider here.
First, consider your child’s appetite. “I can’t tell you how often parents don’t pack enough food,” says Appleman. “Kids need to be fueled for the whole day.” If your child is eating her lunch at snack time or skipping snack to save enough food for lunch, she is going to be hungry – and not having as much fun. “Kids exert a lot more energy at camp than at school,” Wilsey explains, “so they most likely will need more calories than they do during the school year.”
Second, make sure the food is packed right. Send food that does not require refrigeration or choose a lunch box that is properly insulated and include ice packs to keep things cold. Also consider the unpacking. “Think about what containers you use that your camper can open themselves,” Wilsey advises. “Obviously, adults will be around to help kids out, but it’s a nice thing when campers are able to eat all their food without a lot of adult help.”
Third, know your camp’s policy about food allergies. Many camps either have peanut-free lunch tables or require all lunches and snacks to be nut-free. Start searching now for food items that can fill in for things you have to eliminate.
Finally, don’t forget the water. “We ask that every parent send their camper with a refillable water bottle because hydration during summer is so important,” Paravicini says. Even if the camp has water fountains, it’s a nice touch that will ensure your child drinks more often.
If your child takes medication or needs an asthma inhaler, EpiPen or other supplies ready for emergencies, know your camp’s policy. Appleman recommends filling out required paperwork and bringing permission letters from you or your doctor as needed, but also coming to camp early the first day to talk to camp staff about the situation.
“Also, be sure to let the camp know when you would like to be notified in case of your child needing medical attention,” says Wilsey. “For my son with asthma, I do not need a call home every time he needs to use his inhaler, but if he has an attack that leads to him using his nebulizer, I like to be notified.”
Be Ready to Play
Get a list of gear your child will need for camp activities and have it all ready before camp starts. If something is missing, “it kind of ruins their first day, and that first day is so important,” Appleman says. “It sets the tone for the rest of camp.”
If your child is trying an activity for the first time, don’t go all-out until you are sure they will stick with it. Conte advises checking REI for high-quality items and Target for reasonably priced options. Wilsey suggests shopping second-hand stores, Goodwill, Play It Again Sports and even trading sites online. “For my three kids in sports, I always do well just posting to social media and asking friends and family if they have any old or extra equipment around that my kids can have or borrow,” she says.
Can Teddy Come to Camp?
One thing that isn’t likely to be on your camp’s list of suggested gear is your child’s transitional object. Whether you allow your child to bring a special item such as a teddy bear or blanket is up to you, and opinions from camp directors are mixed.
Conte advises that parents only allow kids to bring special items to camp if a child really needs them in order to feel safe. “It is best for the child to let go of what they have known so they can be open to the new experiences camp provides and be able to absorb the various activities and make new friends,” she says. At Yoga House, which offers Theatre/Yoga Camp for ages 6-12 from July 10-28 this summer, campers will want to be able to move around. “In arts and sports, children need to be free,” Conte says. “Holding a ‘security blanket’ may impede them from a full day of engagement.”
If you don’t think your child will make it through the day without their special item, chat with camp staff about that ahead of time. “Sometimes campers can be persuaded to let their special toy just join them in the car, or set up a special ‘camp’ at home for the special toy that the child gets to place the toy in before they leave,” says Wilsey.
If the toy makes it all the way to camp, giving staff advance warning means they can make sure the object doesn’t get lost. “Last summer I had a few campers who brought their little stuffed animal or doll to camp and it was something that comforted them,” says Paravicini. “We all knew the animals’ and dolls’ names and stories and whenever we found them left behind at the game table or in the yard, we took them back to the campers.” Knowing about the transitional object in advance also alerts staff to offer extra support to help the child make friends and feel comfortable at camp. “Usually after the first week or two we don’t see that stuffed animal or doll again,” says Paravicini.
Hold the Phone!
Many kids cling to their smartphones and other handheld electronics so tightly, the devices might be mistaken for transitional objects. But the role these objects should have at camp is limited.
The first concern is that these devices can easily be damaged or lost. “If you are going to send your camper with an electronic device, consider sending that old phone or tablet that you have just sitting in the drawer, so that it’s not devastating if something does happen to it,” suggests Wilsey.
Devices also distract from camp activities. “They impede interpersonal opportunities and focusing on the task at hand,” says Conte. “The experience of being present and free is the central theme of being part of any camp.”
At Performing Arts Workshops, where ages 5-15 can enjoy a variety of musical, film and stage camps at various locations throughout the summer, the policy is for campers to keep phones in their backpacks until day’s end. “Parents want to be able to reach out to their child,” says Appleman, but this can backfire if a child calls the parent in a moment of homesickness or during a spat with a friend. “I’ve had parents rush to the facility only to find their kid happy again because everything has worked itself out.”
Summer Art Academy has made exceptions where campers chatted with parents who were overseas on business in the camp office during break time. The phone stayed in the office until it was time to go home. Camp staff help ensure parents don’t miss special moments while their kids are phone-free. “Our directors do have cells, and if a camper wants to send a picture to their parent of a cool activity they’re doing, we’ll snap it with our phone and send it to them,” Paravicini says.
The Name Game
Anything you send to camp with your child should be marked prominently with your child’s name – and not just the first name. “You should see the amount of sweaters I have with just the name Emily or Josh written on them!” says Wilsey. Include your child’s last name, and even camp team or group name if there is one.
Clothing items are lost the most. “Southern California summer mornings start off chilly, so most campers come with sweaters or jackets,” says Pladys. “By recess, they have been taken off and set down somewhere on campus.” Ecole du Soleil Summer Camp offers five weeklong sessions of French and fun for campers in pre-K to Grade 5 on that Los Angeles campus. Pladys says lunch boxes, hats, water bottles, backpacks and sunscreen are more likely to arrive labeled, “and it does help a lot.”
Dressing your child right, gathering all necessary gear and marking everything clearly can help in so many ways. It makes things easier for camp staff, allowing them to focus on supervising activities and fostering fun. And it makes things easier for your child, allowing her or him to focus on those summer activities that will turn into fun memories in the fall.
Christina Elston is Editor of L.A. Parent.