Sleep-away camp is a rite of passage in some families, while others have never even given it a thought. It may seem scary to send your little one off into the great unknown alone, but there are tremendous benefits – from gaining independence and making new friends to exploring the world and acquiring an appreciation for nature. If you are considering it for the first time, here’s the rundown on a few quality camps, plus some tips to help determine whether your child is ready, and the most common mistakes parents make so you don’t have to.
At River Way Ranch Camp (riverwayranchcamp.com), a multi-award-winning camp for ages 7-16 in the foothills of the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Forests, campers can choose from more than 75 activities – from horseback riding and team sports to performing arts and wakeboarding – and innovative learning opportunities. Campers ages 10 and up get to choose their activities, gaining decision-making skills and self-confidence. First-time campers are River Way Ranch’s specialty.
The family-owned and -operated Central Valley camp, in business more than 50 years, offers transportation via charter bus from Woodland Hills and Orange County. Campers stay in air-conditioned, resort-style cabins equipped with bunk beds and bathrooms. Campers are typically bunked eight campers and two counselors to a cabin. In 2013, River Way Ranch added an 11,000-square-foot dormitory with 12 rooms, two suites, built-in bunk beds and indoor bath facilities that accommodates up to 120 campers.
Last November’s devastating Woolsey fire in Malibu destroyed the original site of Camp Hess Kramer (wbtcamps.org), sponsored by Wilshire Boulevard Temple Camps. But camp goes on and Camp Hess Kramer is excited to welcome 2019 campers to its new location less than an hour north at Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo.
Designed to help Jewish youth develop a better understanding of their Jewish background, the camp program fosters self-esteem and personal identity. It teaches campers how to build relationships and increase their long-term commitment to their families, synagogues and communities in a fun way.
The pattern of each camp day is uniquely Jewish. Prayer is a component. Meals are blessed. Many of the songs are in Hebrew or have Jewish content. Creative arts reflect Jewish culture, and the programming focuses on a theme with which campers become familiar. While knowledge acquisition is valued, the deepening of identity and commitment is the primary goal. Session one begins in June for children entering third through seventh grade in the fall. Session two is for teens entering seventh through 10th grades. There are also sessions for teens entering 12th grade in the fall.
The scenic Camp Ocean Pines (campoceanpines.org) sits on 13 acres of Monterey Pine forest overlooking the shore in Cambria. During its nearly 75-year history, more than 100,000 campers have come to Ocean Pines to make memories. The 10-cabin technology-free facility accommodates 100 kids ages 7 to 15 and maintains a 1-to-4 staff-to-camper ratio.
The camp’s philosophy is built around the goals of “connect, explore and grow.” Making friends can be challenging, so the camp offers a safe and inclusive space where campers can connect and learn to navigate the social world, with highly trained staff helping campers work through social challenges. The camp promotes caring about nature and the environment by giving campers the opportunity to explore through kayaking in Morro Bay, meeting raptors up close or just sitting under the stars. Daily activities and trips are designed to help campers grow by feeling challenged and experiencing success. Campers get praise for their hard work and effort. Camp leaders report that kids leave with confidence and a greater sense of self. There are eight sessions to choose from and four specialty Teen Adventure Trips for ages 14-17.
Six Signs Your Child is Ready
1. They ask to go. If your son comes home talking about a cool sleep-away camp that all of his friends are going to, he’s probably ready for the experience, too.
2. They help you pick out a camp. Studies show that kids who are involved in selecting a camp are less likely to be apprehensive when it’s time to go.
3. They already sleep away. Kids who love weekend sleepovers with grandparents and school friends are likely to be overnight-camp ready.
4. They listen and follow directions. If your child is good at listening to instructions and following directions in school and during extracurricular activities and sports, she’ll probably be a happy camper at sleep-away camp.
5. They are safe swimmers. If your child is a strong swimmer and good at following safety rules in the pool, the lake and the ocean, you can feel more comfortable sending him to a camp that includes water activities.
6. They speak up. If your child can articulate his feelings about bunk arrangements, food concerns and differences with fellow campers, he can probably handle himself at sleep-away camp.
The Do’s and Don’ts
Once you’ve determined that your child might be ready for this adventure, pay attention to these tips from parents who’ve been there.
Start by doing your research and choosing your sleep-away camp with care. “I solicited recommendations from mom friends, coordinated the camp week with friends he would know and selected a trusted organization with a staff we were comfortable with,” says Charlie Brookins, an L.A. mom of two sons.
You should also help your child be mentally ready. Before her son, Johannes, headed to sleep-away camp for the first time at age 10, L.A. mom Nefertiti Austin reinforced his morning routine, meal cleanups and keeping his space tidy to help him be more independent. Build your child’s excitement by talking about all the fun he is going to have at camp. This might be a great time to share some positive stories about your summer-camp days. Don’t, however, tell horror stories from your summer-camp past, or stoke your child’s fears by talking about what could happen at camp if he isn’t careful. Summer camp is about kids stepping out of their comfort zones and trying new things.
When it’s time to pack, your child should take the lead – or at least pitch in. Beth Cowart of Redondo Beach made the mistake of packing her son Connor’s bag the first time he went away to camp. “When he got there, he had no idea where to find his toiletries and underwear,” she says. “The following summer, he packed his own suitcase.”
Before your child loads up that bag, however, make sure to label everything clearly with your child’s first and last name, with labels that won’t wash off or come loose. With hundreds of kids at camp at a time, there’s bound to be tons of red shirts and blue sweatpants. Also help your child think carefully about what he will – and won’t – need at camp. L.A. mom Sharon Levy recalls her 11-year old son Logan’s first time at sleep-away camp. “We packed a change of clothes for every day, but in every photo we received from camp, he had on the same shirt,” she says. “I cringed, but the smile on his face was priceless. The following year, we packed half as much.”
If your child will need medication while at camp, find out the camp’s medication policies ahead of time and let camp staff know about what you will be sending. You’ll most likely be asked to send medications in their original containers and might be asked for copies of the prescription or a note from the doctor.
Also make sure the staff knows that it is your child’s first time at sleep-away camp, so they can be on the lookout for signs of homesickness or separation anxiety. But once your child is off at camp, resist the urge to check in all the time. Let the camp staff do what they do best, which is to focus on making sure your camper is safe and having a blast. Daily emails and check-in phone calls can disrupt the flow of the camp day and shift your child’s thoughts away from camp and toward home.
Above all, don’t force it. Sleep-away camp is not a good way to build independence in a child who isn’t ready. If you have doubts about whether it is the right time for your child’s first experience, it might be best to wait a year.
Sherri McGee McCovey is an L.A.-based freelance writer, New York Times bestselling author and television producer.