My son just got back from a month of summer camp. Many other families around the area are enjoying similar reunions. (They are enjoyable, right? Until your child retreats to their phone and leaves a pile of laundry on the basement floor.) My rising sixth grader has now moved on to other activities: tennis camp, sixth-grade orientation, pranking his adoring sibling and guinea pig care—his little guinea really did miss him, as did his little brother. All that remains of his camp experience are a few bug bites, lots of craft bracelets and, hopefully, good memories.
As a first-time camp parent, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into, and I’m sure I made some rookie mistakes. For example, I now know that I didn’t really need to pack 20 self-addressed stamped envelopes because my child was way too busy having fun to scribe letters by flashlight every night. I asked other parents around the area for their lessons, too. And, so, here are my top lessons learned as a first-time camp parent:
- Do not overpack. Jessica, mom to Owen at Eden Village Camp, says: “Pack half of what’s on the list! I overpacked so much that Owen couldn’t find anything, even though I labeled everything in clear bags. In every Shabbat picture last year, he was wearing dirty pajamas because he couldn’t locate the bag of six—yes, six—all-white combos of everything marked ‘Shabbat’!” She now packs lightly.
- On another camping note: First-time Camp Micah mom Sarah recommends letting your child be part of the packing process. It makes them feel empowered, and, as she points out, they have to pack up to go home without you. If they’re too busy ahead of time, at least have them label everything! “As a secondary teacher, the more involved you can get them in this sort of thing, the better in my experience,” she says.
- Write more, advises Jodi, mom to Alexa, who attended Camp Kingswood in Maine. Kids love getting mail (even if they don’t have time to reply to it).
- Find a friend. If your child is uneasy about heading off to camp, going with a pal can help. “[My daughter] went with two friends from our synagogue, which I think helped her feel more at ease,” says Shari, mom to Hannah at Eisner Camp.
- Going alone? Camp Micah mom Sarah also recommends asking the camp to connect your child with other incoming kids for a pre-camp meetup; her child FaceTimed with kids across the country and went out for ice cream with a nearby camper before heading off, which eased the transition.
- Several parents messaged me that choosing a two-week camp for a first-timer is the way to go. One week doesn’t quite offer the full flavor (you’re heading home before you’re fully adjusted), but a month or longer feels like an eternity for a kid who really misses their iPad, friends and bed.
- Don’t cross-examine. This one’s from me: When Andy collapsed into the car on pickup day, we were so eager to hear every little detail that we peppered the poor dude with questions. Meanwhile, he was exhausted and just wanted to stare out the window. I’m gleaning more info about the month by letting him come to me, usually at bedtime, and not pressing for details.
- Open and draw their shades each night. This one comes from Karen, mom to first-timer Ben. She missed him! To ease the pain, she closed his shades every night and opened them every morning to make his bedroom seem lived-in.
- Don’t send candy (or, at least, learn how to sneak it in). I heard this from so many newbies: They sent candy or some other tasty treat, only to have it confiscated. I’m guilty as charged: I shipped a hulking bag of Sour Patch Kids to Andy for his birthday. No nuts, no problem, right? Nope. He reported that he never got the package; his counselor later surmised that they were confiscated on arrival. Veteran camp parents tell me that, if you really want to smuggle something, you need to hide it in a hollowed-out stuffed animal. Not that I’m recommending skirting the rules! But…be forewarned.
Last, but not least, I’m probably going to send more (non-sugary) packages next year, assuming he’s gone for a month. Nothing fancy: maybe a card game, maybe Mad Libs. He told me that most kids in his bunk, veteran campers, received packages instead of letters. Maybe my camp is swanky or maybe those parents are more devoted than I, but I’ll rethink my mail strategy next year.
Overall, I’m so proud that Andy did it. He knew nobody and proved that he could strike out on his own (in a safe environment with state-of-the-art watercraft and tennis, that is). We made it, too, though we missed him.
How did your experience go? I’d love to hear more tales of first-time camp triumphs!