For generations of American kids, summer camp has been a familiar rite of passage. They'd get some exercise, maybe learn a new skill, and hopefully build a few new friendships before the lazy days of summer ended. Whatever the camp's focus might be, kids could mostly count on a predictable ritual of sunny days and nights around the campfire.
But the pandemic-disrupted summers of 2020 and 2021 turned the camping experience, like most every other part of American life, upside down. Some camps closed, while others attempted to host kids and adopted safety precautions. For many parents of kids too young to get vaccinated, camp just wasn't an option.
So this year, many families may be attempting a "normal" they haven't tried since 2019, or haven't tried at all.
And after two years of hybrid school schedules and learning online, kids may feel trepidation at an in-person camp.
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Fortunately, camping experts say, there are plenty of ways parents at home can help support their summer campers.
Share info about your camper
This year, "kids need more," says Tom Rosenberg, president and CEO of the American Camp Association. "They need more supervision, they need more coaching."
Camp directors and counselors might be especially grateful for insight into the children they're hosting. Communicate with the folks in charge: Knowing how a child responds to conflict "helps us provide a better experience for the camper," agrees Julie Bowman, manager of camps and public experiences at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.
Think about dropping a note to camp directors sharing strategies that work for you with your child.
Communicate with care
Parents often write letters to sleepaway campers explaining how terribly the kids are missed at home. These parents mean well, "but that 9-year-old kid really believes that their parent needs them. They're worried about their parents," says Bob Bechtold, director of programs at Pittsburgh's Sarah Heinz House, which operates a day camp and overnight camp. And they might feel more homesick.
Rather than focusing your letter on how much you miss the child, Bechtold says, "it should be more prompts to get the kids to talk about their experiences and telling them how proud you are."
Mention that you're looking forward to hearing their stories about camp and you're so glad they're having new experiences.
"That puts them in a good place where they can be successful — where they're not worried about home, where they're not thinking about what's going on there," Bechtold says. "That's what camp's about — making those memories, living in the moment."
Also, let your child know in your letters that this can be a summer for trying new things and having fun rather than worrying about excelling, Rosenberg says.
"Making mistakes is an important part of learning, development and growth mindset," he says, and "that's what's great about camp. It's a place where kids can really learn to improve their disposition, to learn and become more curious, to be more discovery-oriented. And not be afraid to just go for it and try something new."
Camps often have emergency items like towels that a camper can borrow. But kids can feel surprisingly uncomfortable telling a counselor they've forgotten something, Bechtold says. Some will do without key items rather than ask for help.
So if your child hasn't left for camp yet, confirm what's needed even if you believe you know, and use a written checklist when packing. And if camp has already begun, let your child know that if anything got left behind, they can tell their counselors and ask for help remedying the situation.
Dealing with devices
Help your child understand and follow the camp's policy on phones and digital devices. Sometimes the rules can be jarring to kids who have spent lots of time on digital devices throughout the past couple of years.
At Bowman's day camp, "we encourage them not to bring a cellphone," she says. "And if they do bring a cellphone, we ask that they keep it tucked away."
Rosenberg says this can be especially stressful for some boys who are more used to communicating via text or on gaming platforms where they're not expected to show emotion or connect empathetically with others.
If your child hasn't begun camp yet, confirm the policy on phones and other devices, and prepare your camper for it. If camp is underway and your child is frustrated that device use is limited, try to encourage them to embrace a screen-free (or at least screen-minimal) summer.
The beauty of camp, Rosenberg says, is that kids develop their budding identities by forming face-to-face connections with others.
Ideally, he says, millions of kids will set digital screens aside this summer and "start building stronger social-emotional connections — the human connections we all need."
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