Summer brings a change in routine, and that’s enough to make some children anxious. The girl who begged to go to soccer camp might have second thoughts about going to a new place with children she doesn’t know. The boy who’s going away to sleepaway camp may be nervous about leaving home for the first time. Here’s what you can do now to ease the transition:
1. Involve your child in planning and preparing.
Narrow your list of options to those that meet your needs, your child’s needs and your budget. Then, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends, give your child a role in planning the summer. Giving him some control over the way he’ll spend his time may head off homesickness. If you can’t let him choose the camp itself, perhaps he can help choose the specific program, days or hours he’ll attend.
As the time for camp nears, involve him in packing his bag for sleepaway camp, making sure all of his clothes are labeled with his name or packing his backpack for day camp. When your child leaves home, whether it’s for the day or the week, be sure he knows who is going to pick him up and when.
If you have a summer jam-packed with different camps, vacations and care-givers, help you child make a wall-size calendar that shows the family’s plans between the end of the school year and the beginning of the next one. Because younger children have trouble understanding the passage of time, give a child who’s going away to camp or to an extended stay with relatives a small calendar so he can mark off the days.
2. Talk to your child about the changes.
Discuss what will be familiar, as well as what will be new. Is she going to day camp with a good friend from school? Is the camp at a familiar location, like the neighborhood YMCA? Are there any familiar faces on the staff? Reassuring her that it’s OK to have mixed feelings will help her learn to manage new situations.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents of children going away to camp talk to them ahead of time about homesickness while staying positive about the adventures ahead. The academy’s guidelines say parents should avoid making an agreement to pick up the child if he gets homesick because it might undermine his confidence in his ability to be independent.
3. Plan for some ordinary days.
If your child is going straight from basketball camp to sleepaway camp to a long family vacation, think about arranging what child development expert Dr. Judith Myers-Walls calls some “buffer periods” to help her rest and enjoy some unscheduled time. If you need child care during the day, consider arranging to share a baby-sitter with friends or neighbors.
“Parents need to realize it’s OK to have ordinary days,” says Myers-Walls, a professor at Purdue University. “You need ordinary meals in between the five-star restaurants to appreciate the gourmet meals.”
“There are real advantages in letting kids do projects, in letting kids get together to do their own newsletter or start a lemonade stand, put on a play or build something,” Myers-Walls says. Children who are overprogrammed miss the chance to exercise their initiative, creativity and teamwork without adult direction, she says.
4. Practice for new experiences.
If your child is going to sleepaway camp for the first time, arrange for sleepovers with a friend or a weekend with a relative in the spring. Take a walk around the block with your child at night and let her practice using a flashlight, or help her plan a campout with a friend in her own backyard.
5. Personalize the packing list.
While most day camps will encourage your child to leave toys at home so they don’t distract him from the program, he will probably want to bring a familiar object along on his first trip to sleepaway camp. He may feel he’s outgrown his favorite stuffed animal, but he might enjoy re-reading a familiar book at bedtime.
Myers-Walls suggests that if the camp allows it, you might send your child with a disposable camera to take pictures of new friends or a tape player with tapes of you reading a favorite story aloud. But remember, things get lost at camp: Don’t plan to send anything with your child that you can’t afford to lose!
If you want to be sure your first-time camper hears from you every day, you could write a series of notes ahead of time and leave them with a counselor to give to your child one at a time.
If you try these approaches, Myers-Walls suggests you alert the camp ahead of time. That way, other parents can do the same for their children, and your efforts to make your child feel comfortable won’t wind up making his bunkmates feel bad.
About those letters:
Experts advise that it’s OK to tell your child you miss him, but try to keep the notes newsy and upbeat. Ann Sheets, president of the American Camp Association, offers this advice: “”Say, ‘I will be eager to see you in two weeks,’ not ‘I miss you, and the dog’s sick because he doesn’t see you any more.'”
And remember, it’s awfully nice to get a package in the mail, says Sheets. While most camps have rules against sending cookies and candy, you can still send a book or a cartoon you’ve cut out from the newspaper.