My kids love to hear stories about my two-week stay at Camp Sequoia in Adrian, Mich., the summer I was 10. I tell them how I rode horses, played capture the flag, and learned how to assemble and fire a BB gun. Sometimes, they ask me when they can go to camp. And I always tell them, When you're ready.
But when will that be? My daughter is 3; my son is 6. Recently I did a little research to find out.
A quick scan of the camps coming to the Kids VT Camp and School Fair on Saturday, February 4, reveals several overnight options within two hours of Burlington. Night Eagle Wilderness Adventures in Cuttingsville piqued my interest. According to its website, this boys' camp emphasizes "ruggedness," fitness, simplicity and "cooperation with nature."
Boys start there at age 10, which is still a few years off for my son. Camp owner Bruce Moreton told me that he recommends that younger kids start with day camp; the Night Eagle experience is too rugged and unfamiliar for them. The boys have to be ready to sleep in teepees. The food is different; the bathrooms are different. The younger kids, he says, "worry about what's out there in the woods."
Hosmer Point Camp, in Craftsbury, looks equally intriguing. Located on Great Hosmer Pond, it introduces boys and girls ages 9 to 15 to all kinds of aquatic activities, including sculling and "aquaskipping," whatever that is. There's a "farm build" program, as well, that involves gardening and caring for farm animals.
Camp director Jon Hammond stresses that there's no one age at which kids are ready to go to camp. "Some 9-year-olds are ready to spend the whole summer at camp," he says, "and some 14-year-olds have trouble with just a few weeks." One way to determine where your child falls on that spectrum, he says, is to assess how easily they overnight away from home. Every camp director I spoke with mentioned sleepovers as a measure of independence.
Hammond has two sons, 9 and 11. They've been spending nights at friends' houses since they were 4. Hammond started his older son at camp at age 8, and says it turned out to be a good experience for him. He seems to think that even young kids are pretty resilient. They might be homesick for a couple days, but by the end, they don't want to leave. "More times than not," he says, "many children are ready before you think they are."
Camp Pok-O-MacCready, across Lake Champlain in Willsboro, N.Y., accepts boys and girls as young as 6 years old. It's the kind of traditional camp that offers sailing, archery, horseback riding and riflery. Sarah Disney, who is director of recruitment and admissions, has been connected to the camp since she became a counselor when she was 18. Her parents sent her brothers to camp there for several weeks, starting the summer they were 6. Each of Disney's three daughters enrolled at age 8.
Disney favors starting kids early. She says the 8- and 9-year-olds experience camp differently from the teens. "They're just sponges," she says. "They are just so excited about everything they do."
To help young kids ease into the overnight experience, Disney encourages first-time campers to sign up for Pok-O-MacCready's three-week day-camp session. They can spend the first two weeks as day campers, and if they're ready, sleep over during the final week.
Disney points out that the longer parents wait to send kids to camp, the fewer years the campers have to bond with their friends, which returning campers say is one of the best things about the experience. As kids get older, she says, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate them from their social circles at home. That's especially true of girls. "I think parents are really doing a disservice to their children if they wait until 12, 13, 14," she says.
Lucy Norvell, director of public information at the New England chapter of the American Camp Association, agrees that there's no one-size-fits-all age when kids are ready for camp. Some kids, she says, are ready at age 6 or 7, though "most first-time campers are between the ages of 8 and 11."
A good first sign that kids are ready for camp? According to Norvell, "They show interest." Often kids hear about camps from family members or friends, or see some promotional material on the web or at a camp fair and start asking if they can go. "If you're lucky enough to have a child who says 'I want to do this, and I really think I can,' I would encourage parents to try to work with that," she says.
In addition to assessing whether kids are comfortable sleeping away from home, Norvell also suggests that parents consider their children's self-help skills. Can they keep track of their stuff? Do they get along easily with peers? Can they ask for help if they need it?
Norvell points out that parents can work on these skills with kids before they go to camp. Have them practice putting their clothes away in drawers, or pack their own lunches and backpacks. Give them more choices: Would they like to shower before dinner or after? Those are the kinds of decisions they'll have to make when they're away from home.
But Norvell also reminds nervous parents that "camps are ready for kids." Their programs are designed to help young kids learn some of those skills, too. Norvell advises parents to research multiple camps and ask a lot of questions. She recommends visiting camp fairs and open houses at camps before the season starts.
Many programs also offer family camp sessions at the end of the season that give parents and their kids an opportunity to stay over, get to know the staff and use the facilities. Yep, parents get to go to camp, too! My kids might not be ready to start camp on their own yet, but I think I'm ready to go back for a few days.