Eight-year-old Sarah Nosrat was anxious the day she left for her first sleep-away camp, a week at Camp Varsity in the shadow of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. It would be her first time away from home without her parents for more than a night.
Sarah wasn’t allowed to bring a cell phone or laptop. As at most overnight camps, Camp Varsity kids are supposed to unplug and enjoy the outdoors. The no-cell-phone rule also helps keep parents at bay. Calls from Mom and Dad can heighten homesickness, so drop-off is a true goodbye. “I think I was more nervous than she was,” her mother, Lisa Rita, says.
Rita drove home to McLean and kept herself busy. Still, she was worried about Sarah’s being so far away, for no reason other than she’s a mom. On day two, Rita called the camp director, who happened to be a family friend, and asked him to check on Sarah. (It’s why Rita chose the camp—she knew she could ask someone to report back on her daughter if necessary.)
Meanwhile, Sarah was having a great time: Within a day, she had a new group of friends and was giggling with them late into the night. “You don’t have time to be lonely,” says Sarah, now an eighth-grader at Oakcrest School in McLean. “I immediately felt more grown-up. I had to take care of myself—like, I had to make sure I didn’t eat too much dessert and had to get to activities on time on my own. I realized my parents aren’t always going to be there.”
Mention you’re sending your seven- or eight-year-old to overnight camp and chances are you’ll get a few wrinkled noses. “Isn’t that too young?” one mother asked Lisa Cuomo, who sent ten-year-old Christopher to Camp Silver Beach on the Eastern Shore last summer. Cuomo knows moms who liken sleep-away camp to “dumping your kid” for the summer. Experts say the idea that children shouldn’t spend their summer at camp represents a shift in attitudes.
“Forty years ago, parents would send their kids to eight weeks of camp,” says Nancy Canter, executive director of the American Camp Association’s Chesapeake office. “Today they go for two or three weeks. Parents just don’t want to be away from their kids quite so long.”
To ease worries, many camps work hard to help parents feel included. Some directors make home visits during the winter to interview children and answer parents’ questions. Others hold “camper in training” weekends where parents and kids try out the camp together. Camps have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts; some have blogs. Once the summer season begins, parents are often e-mailed the day’s schedule each morning.
“They want parents to feel like they’re sharing in the experience,” says Amy Kaplow, Washington-area consultant for the Camp Experts & Teen Summers, a company that helps parents find the right camp.
Rick Frankle, director of Camp Airy, a Jewish overnight camp north of Frederick, says his staff calls parents with an update daily for the first few days. He also instructs his staff to take lots of photographs—“literally thousands,” he says—of the kids going through their activities. New pictures are posted online every day, and the camp also puts up videos.
“Parents are looking for those pictures every single day,” says Frankle. “It makes them more comfortable to get a peek at what’s going on.” (Some, however, may read too much into the photos. A picture of a child standing alone or making the wrong face can trigger phone calls to directors.)