Parents tend to send their children to overnight camp if they went themselves. Many have fond memories of campfire songs, learning to sail, making friends—all without a parent nearby telling them to brush their teeth or make their bed. While campers certainly keep busy, the school year’s frenetic shuttling and studying are gone and kids are encouraged to take part in the simpler rituals such as catching fireflies or building a fire. In other words, they have time to be kids. They can try new things and step outside the social structure of school.
“You get to reinvent yourself,” says Kaplow. “Fifth and sixth grade is a really hard time for kids. They’re insecure. They’ve been pegged as athletic or nerdy. Then they go to camp and can be whoever they want—and try out whatever they want.”
The experience also gives children a chance to “try on” adulthood. Parents believe camp teaches kids how to separate and develop a sense of independence—something they’ll need later as they transition to college.
Arlington mom Jen London’s two oldest boys—Evan, now 12, and Andrew, 10—have been attending Twin Creeks sleep-away camp in West Virginia since they were eight. Their mother went to camp as a child and wanted her sons to experience the same magic of a summer away from home. (She was both happy and crushed when Evan’s first words when she picked him up that first summer were “Can I go for four weeks next year instead of two?”)
London believes that her boys are learning skills they can’t learn elsewhere, such as fending for themselves: “Mom and Dad aren’t there to arrange a play date, so they have to make new friends. They have to answer to different people in charge. They’ve got to deal with the bugs, the dirt, swimming in a lake with slimy seaweed, sharing a cabin with different personalities. It’s all things you wouldn’t do normally, and it’s character-building.”
Says Kaplow: “We tend to micromanage our children these days—even I do. But kids lose out in not being able to do things for themselves. They need to know how to take care of themselves.”
Parents may find that sleep-away camps have changed somewhat from when they were young, though. While many still have traditions such as sing-alongs and capture the flag, most incorporate more instruction than in previous decades. Forget counselors flubbing their way through drama classes—today camps hire highly qualified people to teach everything from photography to circus arts to a traditional favorite like archery. You don’t just try out cooking; you can take a class in a newly built cooking studio with a professional chef.
“In the past, kids would play sports, maybe go swimming and do arts and crafts,” says Rick Frankle of Camp Airy. “Today we’re working a lot more with kids on skill development in areas like the arts, drama, scuba diving, zip wires. We have private music lessons.”
Experts advise against choosing a camp with all the bells and whistles just because you’re impressed by it. “It may not be the right camp for your child,” says Kaplow.
Some camps are sportier than others, some more nurturing. One may have a large contingency of kids from your child’s school, which can inhibit a child from reinventing herself, while another may have a large group who already know one another from their synagogue or church, making your child feel isolated.
Meg Smith, an adviser with Tips on Trips and Camps, a free service in Great Falls that helps match kids with the appropriate camp, asks parents details about their children: what they like, what they don’t, if they’re independent or need more nurturing. “It’s not a one-size-fits-all thing,” she says. “Not every kid will love every camp.”
So what’s the right age for sleep-away camp? Everyone interviewed for this article said about eight. Kids at that age are old enough to weather separating from Mom and Dad and young enough to really enjoy the spirit of camp.
Is your child ready? Camp experts say there’s one easy way to tell. How does he or she handle sleepovers? Says Kaplow: “If you’re the parent who is picking up their kid at midnight from a sleepover, then your child is nowhere near ready.”
Brooke Lea Foster is a frequent contributor to the magazine.
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.