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.)
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.