Campers vs. homesickness

Camp directors offer tips for parents to prepare for what can be inevitable

Camp directors offer tips for parents to prepare for what can be inevitable

May 26, 2006|by KRISTIN WILSON

Imagine: This summer you get to spend a carefree week in the woods. You'll hike, take long afternoon swims, learn to use a bow and arrow and recognize the major constellations. All you have to do is relax and get a little closer to nature.

It might sound like a great escape but maybe not if you're 9.

Taking off for camp, sleeping away from home - and in the woods - can be unnerving for young or inexperienced campers.

Fortunately, parents can help get their kids ready for a great camp experience, camp directors say.

Homesickness is one of the biggest problems that can crop up when kids head off to sleep-away or residential camp programs. The American Camp Association reports that 96 percent of all boys and girls who spent two weeks or more at overnight camp experienced homesickness at least one day.

Since most children will miss their families and pine for the comforts of home, parents can help by getting their children ready for such feelings, says Dr. Christopher Thurber, a child psychologist and creator of the video "The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success."


"It's normal for kids to have some anticipatory anxiety," Thurber says. He encourages parents to have their children sleep at a friend's house for one or two nights as a practice run for sleep-away camp.

"When they spend this practice time away from home, they get to see, 'What were the coping strategies that work for me?' Then, when you get to camp, it's a lot easier," he says.

Strategies to cope with homesickness might be talking with a camp counselor, keeping a positive attitude, remembering that camp only lasts one week or focusing on making new friends, he says.

If a child does experience severe homesickness and wants to go home before camp is over, camp directors encourage parents to resist picking up their kids.

"We tell the parents never make a pickup deal," says Rod Pearce, executive administrator at Mar-Lu-Ridge, a retreat and conference center in the Catoctin Mountains. "Homesickness is a good thing. It shows that there is something about home that they love."

It is not uncommon for campers to write home saying things like, "'I'm so miserable and I miss you.' But that's just the immediate uncertainty," explains Ellen Murphy, manager and director for Camp White Rock, the Girl Scouts of Shawnee Council camp in Capon Bridge, W.Va.

"Parents should not panic about this. Camp directors do not want their campers to be miserable. After several days, if (kids) are totally miserable, most camp directors will call the parents. The best parents I've ever dealt with have said, 'It's OK. She'll be all right. Tell her we'll be there on Friday.' Parents don't want their children to be unhappy, but part of camp is teaching children that they can do things on their own. Camps are really expert at helping children try and do things that they aren't sure they can do. That's one of the prime reasons to send your children to camp."

Following are tips from Tri-State-area camp directors on getting kids ready for a successful overnight summer camp experience:

· Take a tour of the camp. "The No. 1 thing that I would recommend is to come and take a tour of the camp," says Mark Story, executive director of Rhodes Grove Camp & Conference Center, between Marion and Greencastle, Pa. "That will allow the camper a sense of familiarity when they come to stay. It also will allow the camper to meet some of the staff."

Getting to know the camp and having a visual reference is also a comfort to parents, Story says. Parents should ask camp administrators or counselors any questions they have or relay information about their child before camp starts to make sure everyone is on the same page, Murphy adds.

· Help kids get excited about camp. Talk to kids about all of the activities and programs they can take advantage of when they go to camp.

"One of the best ways to help (kids) in preparation for overnight is to make sure they get their minds ready for what's coming up," says Allen Eshleman, executive director of Cove Valley Christian Youth Camp, between Mercersburg and McConnellsburg, Pa. "Keep them moving and thinking about camp. Present going away in a positive way and encourage them to get through the week."

Address children's concerns. "Some children are hesitant about going away for whatever reason," Murphy says. "It's kind of like going to a new school the very first day. You don't know anyone, you don't know your way around, and you're afraid of getting lost." Assure children that there will be adults who can help them learn all about the camp and that every child will be experiencing the same anxieties.

"Talk to (children) about what their concerns are," Murphy adds. "Maybe they are afraid that space aliens are going to come. Maybe they are afraid of the dark. Maybe your child wets the bed, and they are embarrassed about that." Camp directors and counselors are well-versed in addressing such concerns, she says.

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