Thinking about sending your kids to Jewish overnight camp for the first time? We asked Ed Pletman, former camp director and CJP’s current director of informal Jewish education, for his top tips on everything from knowing when your child is ready to how you can best prepare for this unique summer experience.
How might parents know when their child is ready for overnight camp?
The best indicator of a child’s readiness for camp is often when the kids themselves express interest on their own. They might have heard about camp from a friend or relative, or from listening to a parent’s camp stories. When they express an interest, it’s a good sign that they’re ready and that the time might be right to talk about it. If children have not expressed an interest, parents might think about beginning the conversation during school vacations or holidays if their kids are bored or looking for activities; this can be an opportunity to talk about what summer camp might be like. Most overnight camp programs start with campers entering third grade, although some will enroll campers entering second grade for short-term enrollments. It’s important to talk to your child about the experience in a positive and reassuring way, and measure their reaction. You can take them to visit several camps the summer before you’re thinking about enrolling them and judge their excitement and interest level. It’s generally always better to wait the extra year so that you feel most confident that the first summer experience will be a positive one.
What are your top suggestions for choosing the right camp?
Start early—think about the types of camps you might be interested in at least one summer before you’re thinking about enrolling your child for the first time. Most camps have extensive websites with detailed information on their programs, facilities and any special focuses. Do your research and start thinking about the things that are important to your child. You can also ask friends, neighbors, educators, clergy and others that you know and trust for recommendations. Some factors to consider include the size of the camp (Jewish overnight camps in New England range from 200 beds, meaning campers at camp at any one time, to more than 500 beds); coed or single-gender; the distance from your home; denominational sponsorship (there are a full range of Judaic experiences available); special program focuses; your child’s special needs; the length of the sessions; and camp tuition and fees.
Tour the camps you’re interested in during the summer before your child will start. The absolute best way to really get a sense as to whether a camp is a good fit is to visit during the summer to see the facility, campers and staff, and have an opportunity to ask questions. All camps schedule tours for prospective families during the camp season, but most require advance reservations, which typically fill early. You can also consider CJP’s One Happy Camper program, which provides first-time camper grants of $1,000 to campers attending Jewish overnight camp for the first time for a three-week session or longer. For details, visit onehappycamper.org. More resources are available at jewishcamp.org and cjp.org.
How can parents best prepare their kids and themselves for this new experience?
Prepare for camp together! This will help to ensure that the first camp experience will be a positive one. Here are several suggestions:
- Provide opportunities for your child to spend time sleeping away from home before camp begins with friends, relatives or through a youth group for one to three nights. Debrief this experience with your child afterward and talk to them about what they learned, how they coped with being away and what they could bring from the experience to camp.
- Discuss and practice with your child the things that they will be responsible for, or will be taking more responsibility for, while they are at camp. Counselors and camp staff are always there to assist campers, but some of these tasks might include putting away their clean laundry after it comes back, choosing clothes to wear each day, addressing envelopes to friends and family, speaking up and advocating for themselves if something or someone is bothering them, making choices in the dining hall, etc.
- Connect them before camp with a returning camper so they will see a familiar face on their first day at camp if they are not going with a friend.
- Talk together about strategies for coping with homesickness. Camp directors provide wonderful resources and suggestions in their parent manuals. Utilize this information to help prepare your child (and yourself!) and to provide him or her with the skills to cope with this very normal experience. There is also a wonderful resource called “The Summer Camp Handbook” by Christopher Thurber and Jon Malinowski, which provides great tools for helping parents and campers prepare for camp.
- All camps will ask you to fill out many forms with information about your child prior to camp, including behavioral and medical information, plus details on what they like, their fears and their hobbies. Fill out these forms as completely and honestly as possible, as the information you provide will help the staff welcome your child and address his or her needs.
For more information, please visit cjp.org.