Is my child ready for sleepaway camp?

summer camp readiness

Many parents share concerns with me about whether their child is ready for sleepaway camp. What are the signs? How can we be sure? What about homesickness? How long is an okay amount of time away from home — one week, three weeks, six weeks?

I’ve tackled these topics in the past so I’d like to point you to those blog posts as additional resources:

And most recently I wrote about taking off my camp director’s hat and putting on my parent’s cap when I prepared to sign my son up for camp: Blog Series: From Camp Director to Camp Parent: Booking My Son’s First Sleepaway Camp Session. (I’ll be writing more about our journey in the coming weeks and months.)

Still, I thought I’d tackle the readiness topic again this spring since I know that parents like to hear some fresh thoughts on what makes for sleepaway camp readiness.

You can always start with whether she has brought up camp to you. Is she curious? Is a friend doing it and she wants to try, too?

Or if you bring it up to her, does she say she wants to go? If she says she does, then there’s your sign!

Has she spent the night away from home? What about spent the night not with grandparents or cousins, but a sleepover with a friend? If not, a good start would be to plan a couple to see how she does. I did this with my six-year-old son Mason after he kept saying he was ready to go away to camp.

When it comes to using sleepovers as a trial run of camp, I encourage you to not put it in your child’s mind that he or she might get scared and want you or want to come home. If you talk to the parents in advance, YOU will know that they will call if there’s an issue. So don’t put that on your child in advance — little minds conjure big pictures when prompted. It’s best to stay upbeat and simple.

Why Mini Camp is a Good First Step

When a child seems confident and open to new experiences yet sleepaway camp readiness remains a concern, especially over length of time away — three weeks can seem like a long time to a first-time parent of a seven-year-old — we recommend you look seriously at our Mini Camp (or short duration camps like it for boys).

At just one week away from home, Mini Camp can bridge the gap that a parent feels in sending a child away to an entirely new place for an entirely new experience. In spite of rave reviews about sleepaway camp, and camp’s essential role in a child’s whole education, that first time contemplating THREE WHOLE WEEKS away from home can simply feel too daunting for some.

That’s where Mini Camp comes in.

The first thing to know about our Mini Camp — which is for rising 2nd-5th grade girls — is that your camper will experience everything available at our traditional 3-week or 6-week camp in an introductory fashion. That is to say she’ll:

  • Cross over to camp on our charming and storied old-fashioned Barge.
  • Set personal goals for her camp week.
  • Take four of our activities (everything from Arts & Crafts to Drama, Swimming, Tennis, Dance, and more…)
  • Enjoy camp songs, campfires, picnics/Dining Hall, and life on Tent Row.
  • Bond with and be mentored by her specialized, older alum Mini Camp Tent Counselor.
  • Take her activities from and be mentored by our vibrant young Counselor Staff.
  • Swim in the River (complete with an abundance of lifeguards), enjoy personal Rest Hour, learn to manage her cot area and personal effects.
  • Watch (and/or participate in) Dance, Drama, and Singing performances.
  • Feast and celebrate at our Mini Camp Banquet.
  • Become familiarized with camp’s “color teams” (Blue/ Gray) and our friendly color team games and challenges.
  • Wave good-bye to camp as she crosses the Barge back to “civilization!”

We only offer the Mini Camp experience to each camper one time — that is to say, if she comes for Mini Camp one summer in her age range, she’s no longer eligible for Mini Camp because it is an “introduction to camp.” But trust me when I say she’ll want to come back for Term Camp. They always do!

But beyond what they do, what shows that they’re ready to do it?

By and large we find that most children in the target age/grade group (rising 2nd-5th graders) ARE READY. If they enjoy school, playdates, activities, friends, the playground, local workshops, parties, and sleepovers — whether one friend or slumber parties or both — and they generally come home from these things with news, excitement, an accomplishment, (and even sometimes a normal question or concern), then they’re ready.

If they get excited about new opportunities, if they eagerly open themselves to friends and new friendships, if they’re willing to try things, then they’re ready.

BUT, you may wonder, what if they sometimes do and sometimes don’t “open themselves to new opportunity?” Well, that’s normal. Normal, age-appropriate caution, hesitancy, or shyness comes with the territory of being a kid and trying new things. Some kids experience this more, some less.

Sensitive, “slower-to-dive-in” kids aren’t necessarily NOT ready unless this takes on a crippling effect and is part of a larger resistance that is seldom overcome. But the child who “hangs back” and observes before working her way in is a perfectly normal posture and is seldom a readiness concern.

What about Term Camp?

Our Term Camp, which is either three weeks or six weeks is open to the same age group and goes up to rising 11th graders. Rising 2nd graders make up our youngest campers who reside with girls of a similar age and their Tent Counselor in our Junior Camp.

All the watch words of readiness listed above apply to these younger girls with the caveat that they are ready for one reason or another to stay at camp longer. (To be frank, MANY of our Mini Campers actually want to stay for the next session of Term Camp which begins when Mini Camp ends, or ask to come back for Second Term. Sometimes we have availability and sometimes it’s just not in the cards for the family. But in other words, the children signal that they are ready and eager for more.)

Often times families who send younger girls to Term Camp right away, bypassing Mini Camp, either have older girls/cousins/friends in the program too, or themselves went to camp and have pored over old camp yearbooks and built a positive association about time away at sleepaway camp for their child. This is not to say that first-time campers unfamiliar with camp have to choose Mini Camp — it’s whatever works best for the family, and some campers are just ready to dive in to three full weeks.

So on that score, let’s talk about parental readiness.

Are Mom and Dad Ready?

Interestingly, sending kids to sleepaway camp has been a longtime American and European tradition.

Our camp began nearly a hundred years ago, and parents honestly didn’t even question the readiness concept back then and for most of the 20th century.

This is not to say they didn’t care, or were lax parents, or weren’t looking at childhood development. They were! In fact they looked so closely at what the child needed that they KNEW the child needed free time in the fresh mountain air to stretch their limbs and try their wings and enjoy the traditional activities of curious and happy youth — canoeing, river swimming, hiking, dancing, singing, doing arts and playing sports and toasting marshmallows and acting out plays!

And they knew that sleeping in a tent under the stars with a trusted Tent Counselor by their side would refresh and renew them for the school year ahead.

But two things started changing this. First, there was too much frightening news about strangers that was out-of-proportion to either actual events or to the activity at hand. Over time, parents grew more cautious and protective. It’s good to be those things but only to the extent that they don’t hamper your choices and your child’s opportunities. Sleepaway camp remains one of the most tried-and-true, wholesome activities for kids today, with camps like ours subject to rigorous accreditation standards.

Secondly parents were pressured into feelings of competition, worrying unnecessarily about their child’s future is she didn’t do EVERY activity under the sun. Parents began to feel that a child might fall behind if she didn’t get a new choice every week during vacation. Thus parents looked into multiple single-activity day camps over the course of a summer. While that enrichment can be nice, it still means a fast-paced life on the go, in and out of cars, and of course, still surrounded by screens and commercial life.

Sleepaway summer camp like that found at Camp Alleghany for Girls still provides vast enrichment, yet it removes any frantic pace akin to the school year, and utterly removes the online and TV/computer/phone-based presence of screens.

Sleepaway summer camp really nourishes the whole child body and soul in a manner that has stood the test of time. And mom and dad can trust that after more than a 130 years of thriving summer camp culture in America, we’re doing something right and essential!

If mom and dad are still worried about homesickness, I encourage you to listen to my podcast with Mini Camp Director Beth Anne Clark Thomas on the subject — it’s a short ten-minute listen just right for a power walk or while waiting for the kids after school.

And, of course, there’s always the case-by-case basis. Each girl in our care is treated as the unique individual that she is. That’s why if you want to explore questions or concerns of your own, or about your daughter, I’d be thrilled to chat with you and fill in any unknowns or just explore what camp would be like for your girl:

  • Elizabeth by Phone: 540. 490.0128
  • Elizabeth by E-Mail: Elizabeth

There’s also my FREE e-book. “3 Reasons to Begin Your Child’s Sleepaway Summer Camp Journey Early,” covers topics of readiness, but more broadly addresses another topics dear to me: the many benefits of sleepaway summer camp in the development of the whole child. You can download it below!

I encourage you to research the camp world in general (you can start with my Parent Resources page), check out a variety of sleepaway summer camps, ask questions and do your research, and of course stay in touch with this blog for more tips and insights. If I can ever help, do reach out — I’m passionate about assisting parents in finding the right fit for summer camp.

Happy camping!

— Elizabeth Dawson Shreckhise, Assistant Director, Camp Alleghany for Girls