For some of us, the ruminating starts when we’re lying in bed at night, listening to the air conditioning whir. What if he hates summer camp? What if she gets sick? What if it’s the hottest day of the year and I forget to pack him sunscreen/a bathing suit/a fill-in-the-blank? What if she gets eaten by a lion? (No? Just me? Moving on.) However much you worry about your children, the worrying can increase when they are in a new situation and out of your sight. But there are ways to put worrying to bed by taking steps to maximize the possibility of a smooth-as-silk summer camp experience.
Pick, Plan, Pack
Procrastinators, strap in, because a lot of the troubleshooting is completed before camp even begins. Summer Camps in Los Angeles selection is the first and perhaps most pivotal way to avoid problems, and though it seems obvious, it can often be shortchanged in the rush and pressure to get children signed up for something. “Make sure when selecting a summer camp session that it’s something of high interest for the child,” says Cheryl Appleman, president of Performing Arts Workshops, which has L.A. and Valley locations. “Look at the website and any videos together, so that the child is 100 percent on board. If it’s something your child has a strong passion for, that will provide the most engaging experience.”
Once you select a camp, it’s time to do the reading. “Planning is key,” says Elizabeth Tobias, education director at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga. “Whatever program you’ve enrolled in, take the time to read thoroughly the materials that are sent. There will be great ideas in there on how to be sure your camper arrives prepared and ready to enjoy each day to the fullest.”
You don’t have to do this homework alone, nor should you. Getting your camper involved can transform prep into enjoyable quality time while simultaneously giving your camper a sense of agency and ownership in the process. “Read the handbook together at bedtime,” says Kassandra Wilsey, director of Topanga’s Cali Camp. She also suggests involving the camper in packing for camp. When the parent packs the bag, she says, sometimes campers don’t know what they have and may forego swimming or a snack at the canteen because they think that don’t have a suit or money, even though it’s right there in their backpack. When the camper packs their backpack themselves, it will no longer be “The Bag of Mysteries.”
Packing together does double duty as an excitement builder, too. “Being a part of the packing process can get your kid really excited about going to camp. It gets them talking about it ahead of time,” says Wilsey. “You can say, ‘Hey, you’re going to camp in a couple of days. We’ve got your packing list. Let’s check it out.’ Then let them pick out cool things that they want to bring, and that will help them get excited.”
One thing you’ll want to take extra care in summer camp packing: medication. If a camper needs an EpiPen administered, and that pen is in the pocket of a backpack in a sea of other backpacks, precious time will be wasted. So, check out your camp’s medication policies ahead of time. On the first camp day, arrive early, before there is a rush of campers, so that the camp director can attach a face to the medical accommodation, and then make sure your child’s medication is in the right hands.
A Visit and a Pep Talk
For an extra dose of peace of mind, consider physically visiting the camp before summer starts. Most camps have some sort of open house or visiting policy. This can improve the comfort level of parent and camper. “When you go to see the camp, bring your soon-to-be-camper with you,” says Liz “Tuk Tuk” Kimmelman, director and president of Tumbleweed Day Camp in the Santa Monica Mountains. “Ask lots of questions. Camp directors love to talk! By creating an image in your child’s mind of the kind of experience they will have and setting up that relationship with the director, chances of a mismatch with camp or separation anxiety will be small.”
Tobias agrees, saying that visiting ahead of time “is a great opportunity for campers to get the lay of the land before the first day.”
Concerned about your child incurring injuries at a particularly active camp? After visiting, you and your camper might realize that one of the safest places to go is a camp full of swordplay. “We don’t really have injuries,” says Bianca Costin, owner of Avant Garde Fencers Club in West L.A. “The blades of the sabers are blunt and the kids wear protective gear. It’s almost impossible to get injured with Kevlar uniforms and masks.” Campers can learn about the gear at one of the club’s complimentary trial classes.
As for my fear of camper-eating lions, Dan Keeffe, director of education at L.A. Zoo Camp, confirmed that I am alone in that. “Parents don’t tend to have animal-based worries, but occasionally we have kids who are afraid of certain animals, and then part of their experience is that they have the opportunity to get more comfortable,” he says. “We try to create a really nurturing environment where campers feel safe and can experience things at their own pace and on their own terms.”
What parents do worry about, says Keeffe, is the heat. But the camp has planned for that. “We spend the morning out in the zoo when it’s cooler and the kids have more energy, and then spend the afternoons in our air-conditioned spaces where campers can meet animals up close.”
If your child is headed to sleep-away camp, homesickness might top your list of worries. But homesickness is not necessarily a bad thing, says Erin Moses, director of Camp Ocean Pines, a sleep-away camp in Cambria. “Kids can learn a lot working through this feeling, and they walk away more resilient and self-confident.” To help with this process, preparation – are we sensing a theme here? – can be helpful. “Talk with your child. You can say things like, ‘It’s all right to miss home and we are so proud of you for making this decision to be independent. You are strong, and we believe in you. Homesickness means you have someone at home who loves you,’” says Moses. She also reminds parents that kids are not at camp alone. “Camp staffers are trained in how to help kids navigate homesickness,” she says.
Campers will get the most help from staff if they know that it is OK to advocate for themselves and have discussed how to do that beforehand with their families. “One of the reasons parents send their children to camp is to help them gain confidence and independence, and they can do that by utilizing their resources and asking for help when needed,” says Nathalie Moss, owner and director of Canyon Creek Summer Camp in Lake Hughes. “A camper can feel safe and secure going into camp knowing all the people there that they can rely on: their counselors, cabin mates, the directors and the whole amazing camp staff.”
The Right Way to Check In
Once your camper is finally off at camp and you are living your life, are you finding yourself checking for updates of their progress via emails? The brightwheel app? Your Magic 8 Ball? Better to wait, says Wilsey. “We post pictures of the kids all the time, and I’ve had parents call me, concerned, and say, ‘Why does my child look sad in this picture?’ But this is just one small moment in time. Wait until your child comes home for the day and they can tell you all about what was happening when the picture was taken.” This is a great way to prompt stories from children who are in the habit of answering questions about their day with the mind-numbing responses “Good,” “Fine” and “Nothing.”
Another way to stay involved in a camper’s day is to reinforce the activities of themed camps at home. At Performing Arts Workshops, Appleman encourages practicing lines with a family member after the camp day is over. “It’s great when the parent is engaged at home with the child, reading lines with them and helping them prepare. It gets the child really amped for when they get to be on stage. They have a sense of their parent’s participation in that process,” Appleman says. “And it gives the parents something fun to watch for when the child is performing. They are reminded of the time they had at home preparing for this moment. It makes it much more of a family affair that way.”
These strategies constitute a healthy channeling of a parent’s desire to be involved in the camp day. And, according to Tauby and Davida Ross, directors of KidsPark in Northridge, separation anxiety can be harder on parents than it is on kids. KidsPark has flexible hours, so the Ross’ recommend keeping the first few visits short to reassure your child that you always come back after they have a little fun.
Fun as the antidote to separation anxiety is the name of the game at Kidspace Children’s Museum, too. “As soon as a camper arrives, we quickly engage them in a hands-on, fun-focused activity with fellow campers,” says JJ Leissing, chief programs officer at Kidspace. “By getting them active and incorporated in camp activities right away, it lets campers focus on the fun and not on being away from their parents.”
Every child is unique, and parents may have unique worries to match, so consider your own list of potential pitfalls and see whether there’s a preventive strategy you can employ. Ask yourself, “Is this something that will be helped by having a conversation about it with my child ahead of time? Or with the camp director? Is there something my child and I can tuck in the backpack to avoid this problem? What else can we do in the planning stages to prepare?”
A psychology professor told me once that anxiety is simply excitement without support. The support that comes through preparation and communication between the parents, the child and the camp can strip away this anxiety, leaving only excitement about what summer will bring. Of course, there will be bumps in the road in any camp experience, but these should be the kind that make summer camp the wonderful incubator of independence and resilience that it was meant to be.
No need to stay up worrying. Go to sleep and dream of happy campers.
Kate Korsh is a regular contributor to L.A. Parent and an obsessive planner who has had her two kids signed up for camp since January.