Parents often ask me what age is good for a child to begin attending sleep away camp. Just as there is no one type of camper, there is no one answer to this question, but over the course of many years, I’ve seen a pattern in camper success related to age, and I’ve come to believe that sooner is better than later.
Specifically, I believe that there are fewer adjustment problems when campers begin at ages 8-10 rather than when they wait until 12-13. I deal with more homesick early teens for a longer period of time than I deal with 8-10 year-olds suffering from lingering homesickness. They develop an attachment to their counselors more freely (as young children often do with older young people), and quickly feel themselves right at home. Older first-time campers often do very well, but some of them are more hesitant to make connections, try new activities, or let go of home in ways that are healthy. In an odd reversal, older first time campers can be less resilient than their younger counterparts.
I have a theory about this, and the seed of this stems from my own granddaughter, who came to camp for her first summer in 2016. She is at the youngest end of our campers, but she has more recently begun school, and she has learned that she can (and just did) adjust to all the new adults, children, activities, and expectations of her expanded world. She is eager, and finds support from her parents (and me) despite our collective nervousness. But I’ve also learned to keep these anxieties to myself. When I express that I’m worried about how someone will do in a particular situation, I am telling that person that there might be a reason they, too, should worry. Our expressed fears tell them there are things to fear, or perhaps worse, that we don’t think they are up to the task. I think we send the same message when we do for our children what they can do for themselves.
I don’t mean to oversimplify the issue of adjustment to overnight camp, and of course, there are always many factors to consider, including the right age. But whatever the age, it’s an accomplishment to be away from home and parents. It’s also a necessity. We want our children to become resilient, but they can’t if they have nothing against which to develop resilience. We want our children to be able to walk the world on their own two feet. It’s easier to start early than to spend a lifetime catching up.
Mary-Jane Curran, Girls Camp Director