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In preparing for summer camp, parents ask a lot of questions – as they should.  What happens when a child get homesick?  What kind of activities will my child be able to participate in?  How will your staff help my child make friends?

All of these are good, valid concerns.  But my favorite question, hands down, is “How far away is too far away to send a child to summer camp?”

How Far is Too Far for Summer Camp?

If you are a reader who likes his or her answer up front, let me satisfy your curiousity immediately with a 2 part response:

  1. It depends on the child attending camp.
  2. It depends on the parent who is sending the child to camp.

Now its perfectly clear, right?  Perhaps not.  But it was helpful, right?  Again, perhaps not.

This summer, I ran a poll on LinkedIn  and asked adults this very question (http://linkd.in/mMvo0b).  With a few votes shy of 200 responses, my results are less than definitive, but the comments were pure gold.  I simply asked, “If you were sending a 10 year-old to sleep-away camp, what is a comfortable distance?” 

When framing my responses, I used times (less than 1 hour away, 1-2 hours away, 2-4 hours away, anywhere in the country, and anywhere in the world), but I did not define how a camper might be travelling.  In my opinion, once campers are travelling more than 4 hours away (by car, boat, train, or plane), they are too far away for parents to rush to their aid in the same day.  When campers are 4 or more hours away, they are “beyond reach.”  Coincidentally, this is how I picked a college.  I wanted a school that my parents could not easily visit.  I chose Grinnell College in Iowa, a full 16 hour drive from my home in Pennsylvania. 

As you might expect, responses to this simple question were all over the map (pun intended).

  1. 21% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp less than 1 hour from home.
  2. 34% of respondents were comfortable with their child attending camp 1-2 hours away.
  3. 27% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp 2-4 hours from home.
  4. 9% of respondents were comfortable with their child attending camp anywhere in their home country.
  5. 9% of respondents felt comfortable with their child attending camp anywhere in the world.

If you take the time to review the results in more detail, you would find a trend towards older parents feeling more comfortable with their children traveling further from home than younger parents.  You wouldn’t see significant differences between men and women.

My Advice to ParentsThe perfect camp will be where you and your child’s comfort levels intersect.  Some kids are ready at 7 to fly across the country.  Some parents will never be ready for their children to be an hour away from them.  As my father is fond of saying, “moderation in all things.”  Look for the compromise. 

Look for the point at which your comfort and your child's comfort intersect.

Please keep this in mind:  Your goal should be to challenge your child and push her a step beyond her comfort level.  If you keep her too close, she may not feel challenged and/or independent.  If you push her too far out of her comfort zone, she may not benefit from the experience.  The same thing goes for you as a parent.  If you’re a parent who believes you can’t live without your child sleeping in the next room, look for the camp that is an hour away or less.  Don’t immediately send your camper across the country.  Moderation.

My Advice to Camp Directors:  “What?” you may wonder, “What does this post have to do with the art of camp management?”  Well, it should impact how you look at your marketing work.  Most parents responding to this poll, 55%, are comfortable sending their child to a camp less than 2 hours away.  82% of all parents who responded to the survey are looking for a camp that is less than 4 hours away from their home.  So, if you are on a limited marketing budget, focus on promotional events and ads that are within 2 hours drive of your camp.  Half of all parents looking for sleep-away camp next summer will be comfortable with your location.

We’ll see you at Camp!

Nathan

Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp program (YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser and Bynden Wood), The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.

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So you have made the decision to send your child to summer camp.  It was a great decision.  Your children will learn about the outdoors and themselves while meeting interesting people and making new friends.  Well done. 

Now you have questions, “Is my child ready for this?”  “Am I ready for this?”

Don’t Panic

It’s early now and you have time to worry about the “big questions.”  Remember why you felt a summer camp experience was important for your child.  As he matures, it’s important for him to take his first steps into the-big-bad-world.  There is no safer, better supervised environment for him to test the wings of his new-found independence than in summer camp.

Ask Questions

What your 4th grade English teacher said was true, “there are no stupid questions.”  If you, the parent, never went to summer camp, we expect you to have a lot of questions.  Even if you went to summer camp last century, believe us when we say a lot has changed.  Parents should call, email, or visit their summer camp until they have every questioned answered.  Don’t worry about us, we love to talk about camp.

Stay in Touch

Join your camp’s Facebook page.  Follow your camp on Twitter.  Visit the camp website every week.  Visit camp for a tour, an open house event, or attend a family camp program.  The more interaction you have with camp staff, the more comfortable you will be when your child goes away for a week or two this summer. 

Visit

You’ve seen the brochure.  You watched the videos.  You’ve visited the website.  You’ve talked to camp staff.  Visit the camp!  It will be worth the trip, and it will give you and your new camper another chance to ask questions and get comfortable. 

Be Brave for Your Child

After 20 years on summer camp staff  there is a dirty little secret about homesickness I think you ought to know:  Your fond farewells on the first day of camp can often cause – or alleviate – homesickness.  If your camper sees you are nervous and sad at the start of camp, she will feel that way, too.  She will often feel sad for you.  Be strong for your new camper.  Let her know how excited you are for her to have this new experience.  Let her know you will be alright while she is gone.  It could make all the difference.

Take Time for Yourself

Parents deserve a break.  Summer camp can give you that break.  You are unlikely to ever have a better trained person looking after the needs of your child than during a week of summer camp (other than you, of course).  Most camp staff are CPR and 1st Aid certified, they have been trained in dozens of fun games and activities, they sleep in the same room with the kids they care for, and watch what they eat at meals.  Take a break while your child is away and in good hands.  Watch a movie.  Visit a spa.  Recharge your batteries.

Celebrate the Accomplishment

Celebrate the accomplishment of completing the first week away at summer camp (for you and your child).  After camp, go to a favorite restaurant and share with your child how proud you are of him.  Chances are, he will have a lot to talk about. 

Know that your child is going to learn new things, build self-esteem, make new friends, and be cared for by excellent camp counselors who are there for you child.

We’ll See you at Camp!

Nathan

Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp, The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.

*This article was started by Jeff Henry, the summer camp intern at YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser, and finished by Nathan. 

  

Here at Camp Conrad Weiser and the Bynden Wood Day Camp (South Mountain YMCA, www.smymca.org), we have crossed the halfway point and are staring down the end of our summer season.  Campers have gained independence, developed positive self-esteem, made friends, and even learned a few new skills along the way.  They have also ruined at least one t-shirt climbing the high ropes course or mountain biking through the mud.  The 18-22 year-old counselors have all decided there is no better summer job.  By this point, they have also realized they can wait a few more years until they become parents.  And we all need a new pair of sneakers or sandals. 

By any measure of success, it has been a good summer so far with many good times yet to come. 

Is every moment perfect?  Absolutely not.  As in parenting, we have highs and lows.  We can look at conversations we’ve had with kids and identify better ways to frame things.  We have examined games from the first half of the summer and made adjustments for the second half of the summer that improve them (safety, timing, fun, etc.).  Running a summer camp, like parenting, is a process of constant improvement. 

YMCA Camp Conrad Weiser

 

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More than a decade ago, I was approached by a parent at the end of a day camp day.  We had been enjoying a successful, safe summer and I was proud of our accomplishments.  I was bullet-proof, impervious to criticism, and ready for anything – except for a parent with a legitimate point.  Imagine a day camp at your local park.  The program runs from 9 am-4 pm.  You can drop your kids off as early as 8:30 and can pick them up as late as 4:30.  But the camp day is 9-4.  What happens for that first and last half hour?  When I was in my early 20s, long before I dreamed of becoming a parent myself, I looked at moments like this in a camp day differently than I do now.  That first half hour seemed an impossibility to program.  Counselor groups couldn’t function because kids were coming or going.  Games like soccer would completely break down because the camper population was in flux.  Instead, I treated those first or last 30 minutes of the day as “free time.” 

And then a mother, with a mother’s eye, called out the weakness of my camp’s design.  She wrote me a letter about the lack of program in the closing 30 minutes.  She noted that kids were sitting in the shade, not engaged by staff, simply waiting.  She saw counselors circling up around the picnic table with their clip boards.  In short, she saw the worst part of our day.  Every parent that encountered us saw us at our worst.  And I did this by design. 

At first, I tried to explain it away.  In my ridiculous 22 year-old pride, I tried to tell this mother that the campers were active all day.  My campers spent hours swimming, playing, creating, and teambuilding – sometimes kids just needed time to be – not do.  I’m not exaggerating.  I actually wrote that to a mom.  It’s embarrassing.  

The truth is, and was, that those two, half-hour periods in my day were weak.  Terrifyingly, these were the two times of the day that parents were able to see our program.  Parents did not experience our teambuilding sessions.  They did not see our crafts class.  They did not take our nature walks.  They did not watch our talent show.  Parents saw us at our worst.  It was a summer camp slip.  The mom who brought it to my attention was correct.  I needed to make a change. 

That summer, back in 1997, we did change our program.  It was humbling.  We ensured that there were structured activitiess during the 30 minutes of parent sign-in.  We designed 4 structured programs our campers could choose from each afternoon during sign-out.  We began to invite parents to our our talent shows (which we transformed into Parent Shows) each Friday at 4 p.m. – immediately before sign-out.  We got better.  

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Every summer camp will slip this season.  Sometimes we slip when parents can see it, sometimes not.  The true mark of a great summer camp and a capable director is the ability to admit the error and address it.  When you, as a parent, see something “not right” in your child’s camp this summer, bring it to the director.  Be patient, you may have to explain it to us twice.  If we respond, make adjustments, and follow-up with you – you’ve found a good program.  

We’ll see you at Camp! 

Nathan

Be sure to visit Nathan’s camp, The South Mountain YMCA Camps, at www.smymca.org.