Director's Articles

For over a decade, the camp director, Jim Wiltens, wrote a nationally syndicated column on how to bring out the best in children. Here are several of the articles he wrote about sending a child to summer camp:

"High Touch Wilderness and High Tech Kids"
"How to Choose a Summer Camp"
"Getting the Most from Your Summer Camp Investment"
"When is the Right Time to Send Your Child to an Overnight Camp?"
"Dealing with Homesickness"

About the Author

High Touch Wilderness and High Tech Kids

by Jim Wiltens

"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions." - Oliver Wendell Homes

"Why should I spend money to send my children to summer camp?" Mrs. Mason asked. "Will my kids get something out of camp they can't get the rest of the year?" She looked at me expectantly.

As the director of a summer camp, I had a sense of deja vu. More and more parents want to know if there are specific benefits associated with the camp experience. Mrs. Mason was no exception.

Actually there are quite a number of things that happen at camp which make it a unique experience in a child's development. There are four distinct areas in which summer camp can benefit high tech kids.

Balancing Education

If a child's experiences always take place in a technological world they get a one-sided education. Their concept of intelligence is actually shaped by technology. Howard Gardner, in his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence, purports that IQ tests and school curricula tend to measure and promote one or, at best, two of the seven potential forms of intelligence. Logical-mathematical thought processes are heavy favorites in our society with linguistic ability in second place. Schools, which are heavily swayed by technological desires, tend to ignore or depreciate other forms of intelligence.

So what's the big deal? The big deal is that it imposes limitation. For instance, logical thought processes, idolized in Western culture, are often not the source of quantum leaps in knowledge. Great discoveries have often been the result of leaping off the tracks of logic, moving laterally with great bounds from one discipline to another, often unrelated and less than logical. Roger Von Oech, in A Whack On The Side Of The Head, refers to the creative process as "soft thinking," a skill that, "...much of our education is geared toward eliminating ... or at best, teaching us to regard ... as an inferior tool."

If the soul of the robot dictates what we value as intelligence, millions of children will suffer. Many children are gifted with other forms of intelligence such as spatial, bodily-kinesthetic and two forms of personal intelligence–interpersonal, knowing how to deal with others, and intrapersonal, knowledge of self. Schools that praise children with a single type of intelligence create an environment in which poor self-esteem is fostered in those children not motivated towards logical-mathematical forms of intelligence. A poor self-image can in turn hinder a child's efforts in developing his other abilities. It can in effect, lower the self-esteem of many children and for those considered "intelligent," promote a single way of thinking.

Summer camps offer an alternate environment. Experiential activities are the mainstay of camp programs and such activities are different from traditional teaching methods. Learning at camp tends to involve many senses. For example, a school may show a child a picture of a dissected dragonfly, a flat two-dimensional representation of life. But at camp, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. If you see that dragonfly darting across a pond, rainbows dancing on his armored torso, hear the "rrrrrr" of his wings when he comes so close he makes you flinch, then you have a knowledge of dragonflies that doesn't come from books. This type of experience, called holistic, involves multiple senses, feelings, and an integration of different types of intelligence.

It has been suggested by Brady and Luecke, in Education and the Brain , that developing both analytical and holistic abilities increases student achievement. Simply stated, give children a chance to discover their talent in an environment conducive to the use of different types of intelligence. This discovery causes an increase in self-esteem that spills over into other areas. The result is that all types and levels of intelligence benefit.

The Consumer Gremlin

Another gremlin created by technology is an insatiable preoccupation with acquisition. The hype we are bombarded with daily creates a confused value system. Children begin to mix "I need's" with "I wants". "Without that dress I'm nothing," "I'll just die if I can't get a concert ticket," "I've got to have an Ipod." When children can no longer distinguish between the "I needs" and "I wants," we have the potential for instability. Unwarranted stresses are piled on our children (not to mention ourselves) by a form of media pollution. I am not a valid human being unless I use that mouthwash, wear her jeans, get my hair cut at that salon, sport Ralph Lauren shirts, and drink the 'now' generation soda. These are all "I wants" that the advertising media labels "I needs". Any parent with a precocious three-year-old knows the tenacity with which that toddler will proclaim his inalienable right to have a particular cereal advertised on Saturday morning television. The confusion of needs and wants is established early on by a media that uses technology to permeate our conscious hours.

Summer camp can help establish perspective between "I need" and "I want," sometimes very simply. Suddenly there are no cars, telephones, televisions, stereos, computers, malls, concerts, radios, signs, movies, or advertising. All the stresses of acquisition, of not having what we feel we need, are brought into simple focus. As Robin Williams says, "Reality, what a concept." Or as the great explorer Admiral Byrd said, "...half the confusion in the world comes from not knowing how little we need."

A cool drink of water after hiking is an appreciated need. Deep breaths as you ascend to the summit of a peak are an exhilarating need. The warmth of a campfire on a chilly night is a savored need. And the meal at the end of the day is a satisfying need. When children are no longer mesmerized by the next gadget they plan to buy, they experience a peace that has always been the trademark of nature. No longer bludgeoned about the head by ubiquitous advertising, kids can open their eyes. Now they can think about something other than consumption.

Self-Reliance Is Not Found In A Cellophane Wrapper

Technology breeds a misplaced dependence on artificial things. Water comes from a tap, food from a supermarket, heat from a dial on the wall, and the world is composed of asphalt, boards, and concrete. Children fail to grasp that the technical world is not self-sustaining. It has no energy of its own. Rather it draws its power from nature.

Being technologically dependent can affect a child's sense of self-reliance. If most of the needs and comforts a child equates with existence are produced by a mechanized society, there is a strong pressure to conform. Survival seems to depend on a manufactured habitat.

Part of the solution is balance. Summer camps are often in rural or wilderness surroundings. Children have an opportunity for contact with nature. At a farm camp, a child may experience tremendous delight in picking tomatoes for the evening meal or collecting eggs for breakfast. Higher in the mountains another group prepares to sleep under the stars, far from buildings and civilization. Yet another camper uses the wind to power his boat to an island destination. All of these experiences establish a rapport with nature. Removed from the confines of an increasingly interdependent society, children may come to know the simplicity of self-dependence. In addition, just as we are interested in the condition of a close friend, nature takes on a new meaning. It's a chance to see that our well-being as a race is related to the well-being of Mother Nature.

Spectator vs. Participant

Another unbalanced aspect of technology is the encouragement of spectator over participant activities. It is ironic that as technology reduces the hours in our work week, we spend progressively more hours as technological spectators. The less we work, the lazier we become. Children are being domesticated to spectatorship. Real participation, challenges and goals are being replaced by the often unattainable and not necessarily wholesome pursuits of screen demi-heroes, the veritable gods of Olympus: Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and Luke Skywalker. When we relinquish our adventures for those of imaginary heroes, we become voyeurs of life. Being a watcher contains no effort, no risks or commitment. It's a subtle hypnotic pleasure. In many respects, you relinquish your consciousness to the screen. Continual spectatorship has a tendency to desensitize us to reality.

Summer camp is a counterbalancing participant activity. At camp, everyone is a 'doer'. You carry your own pack, paddle your own canoe, saddle your own horse and catch your own fish. Thrills are not vicarious, neither is the sweat, risk or commitment. You've heard the statement, "I exist, therefore I am," at camp it is, "I do, therefore I exist." Participation is an attitude, and, like all attitudes, it is learned.

High tech kids need balance. Summer camp is one way to regain that sense of equilibrium. Don't misunderstand me; technology is a marvelous thing, like all shiny new things it can catch and hold our attention. If it holds our attention too long, we may acquire a set of technological blinders and develop tunnel vision in a three-dimensional world.

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How to Choose a Summer Camp

by Jim Wiltens

Every Spring, I see guidelines on how to pick a summer camp. As a camp director, I note that many of these suggestions are too general to be of value. Like, "make sure the camp is safe." What camp director won't say his or her camp is safe? It might be better to ask, "How much safety training do camp personnel receive prior to the start of camp?" and "What is the ratio of certified lifeguards to swimmers?" When evaluating a camp, parents need to prepare a few key questions. It needn't be a long list. The responses you receive to a few well-thought out questions often points out a general trend. Let me present you with some questions to ask yourself, as well as some probing questions to ask camp directors.

The first question is directed toward parents:

"What kind of camp will be best for my child?"

You can break this one down into two general categories:

1. Day or Resident Camp

2. Activity specific camp (Sport camp, farm camp, adventure camp, academic camp, weight loss camp, riding camp, music camp, etc.)

Deciding on a day or resident camp requires parental evaluation. Younger campers (6-10) who have not been to visit with Grandma and Grandpa, who have done little traveling, have had few sleep-overs, and appear overly anxious about living away from Mom and Dad may feel more comfortable with a day camp to start. On the other hand, older children (11 and up) often relish the adventure of living away from home for a week or more at a resident camp. In general, resident camps require more maturity on the child's part.

When it comes to activities and program, involve your child in the decision-making process. Helping choose a camp gives a child a sense of responsibility which ultimately contributes to the camp experience. There are several things you can do to make them feel involved:

1. Have them go over the choices for camps.

2. Let them call, write for brochures, or view the website.

3. Have them present when you meet with the director or make a pre-camp visit.

4. Prior to their visit with the director, have them prepare a list of questions (this also helps a parent determine what is important to their child). They might ask, "What kind of food do we eat?", "Where do we sleep?" or "Do we have to go on hikes?" In the end, the final decision should be an agreement between parent and child, not a one-sided decision on the parent's part.

"What questions should I ask the camp director?"

The director sets the tone of a camp. Like a conductor, they orchestrate the hiring of personalities compatible with their operation, oversee training, and enforce adherence to standards. Directors run the gamut from Aunt Marybell and Uncle Richie types, utilizing common sense and down home charm, to professionals versed in modern techniques of child psychology. There are also some crummy directors–this is why it is a good idea to meet with the director to determine if their values and ideas are compatible with yours. You are, after all, the final judge.

A good question to start with is, "What is your camp philosophy?" Does the camp view itself as an elaborate baby-sitting service or does it have goals involving self-esteem enhancement, the learning of skills, or establishing better personal communication within a group? Follow up with questions that probe into how the camp intends to implement their philosophy--make sure you aren't hearing platitudes. If the director says, "We feel camp enhances self-esteem." Ask them simply, "How? Give me a specific example of what your camp can do for my child in the area of self-esteem." Asking for specific examples is an excellent technique for scraping away the fluff to find out if there is something solid underneath.

"Can you provide references?" Talk not only to other parents, but if possible, to the children who have attended the camp. If your child can talk with another child who has gone to camp, all the better.

"What criteria do you have for hiring counselors and instructors?" Age is an important consideration. Responsible high-school students may be sufficient for working with youngsters in a playground setting (where adults are readily available), such as occurs at a day camp. College age counselors or above are appropriate for older campers and resident camps. Ask, "Do you require your counselors to have current certifications in first aid and CPR?" Another good question is, "Do counselors attend a pre-camp training session?" If the answer is "Yes," then ask, "What do they cover in this trainin?" (Some camps use the "training session" only to sweep out cabins, paint fences, and set up camp.) Find out what characteristics the director looks for in employees by asking, "Could you give me a thumbnail sketch of several of the counselors you had working for you last season?" If the director is hazy about his employees or gives you a description that would fit half the world's population, put up a warning flag.

An important consideration is, "What is the ratio of counselors to campers?" Reasonable ratios are 1:5 for children 7-9 years of age, while older campers 14-18 years old can be adequately supervised by 1:8. You will also want to know how many adults are present on the staff to oversee counselors. Water activities should have sufficiently trained and certified lifeguard staff. While two trained lifeguards can easily handle a highschool sized pool with several hundred swimmers, a beach or lakefront situation brings the ratio down markedly.

Many parents ask, "How can I be assured that a camp meets certain safety guidelines?" Let me answer a portion of this question now. The state sets regulations for summer camps. The agency responsible for enforcement of these regulations is the local county health official. In theory, this is an excellent arrangement. In practice, each county's supervision of camps within their domain differs markedly. Some health inspectors conduct a thorough inspection, others are so harried that they may only have time for a 30 minute review, if any at all. There is also a national organization that reviews camps. This is the American Camping Association. Camps applying for accreditation with this organization must meet a rigorous set of standards that often supercede state standards. Member camps are visited periodically by camping professionals who observe and evaluate adherence to standards that cover everything from camper/counselor ratios, sanitation, vehicle maintenance, waterfront supervision, meal nutrition, medical screening, and numerous other areas. Of the 10,000 camps in the United States, less than 20% are accredited by the American Camping Association (ACA). Accredited camps display the ACA seal, a rating analogous to the Seal of Good Housekeeping. It should be made clear that a number of excellent camps are not accredited by the American Camping Association.

Questions related to safety might include, "What is your safety record?" and "Tell me about procedures for a fire or water emergency." You should understand that even in a well run camp with excellent procedures and supervision, accidents can happen. When you ask specifics, the director should be able to respond with organized procedures for handling emergencies. This demonstrates awareness and forethought, a major part of safety.

If a parent wants in-depth criteria to look into, write to the American Camping Association for a copy of Camp Standards with Interpretations (this book is usually purchased only by camps). Call 1 (800) 428-CAMP. This booklet contains requirements for being an ACA camp. Nitty-gritty standards like, "Is a Personal Flotation Device (life-jacket) required for every person in a watercraft?", " Are health examinations required for campers and staff prior to camp?", and "Are written procedures for disinfecting food service utensils in effect?" may seem small, but can make a big difference in a camp's safety and it's effect on your child.

In relation to advertising, some camps have a beautiful picture in their brochure of a particularly exciting activity. When children arrive at these camps, they are often disappointed to learn that they only get to do that activity once for a half-hour in two weeks at camp. Ask, "How many horses do you have and how much can my daughter or son ride every day", "How many windsurfers do you have", "Is the lake that we see on the cover of your brochure on-site or a one hour drive away?" Asking about equipment and resources available, then dividing by the number of campers at the facility quickly narrows down what your child might really be able to do.

Summer camp is a marvelous opportunity, an experience that goes into a child's memory scrapbook. A good summer camp experience can have a positive shaping effect that lasts a life time. But, it is up to parents to ask the right questions to make sure they get the best for their child.

"Where can I obtain information on summer camps?"

Parent's Guide to Accredited Camp:, 1 (800) 428-2267. A guide to accredited summer camps in the United States (refer to the article for an explanation of accreditation).

Listing of Accredited Camps in Northern California: (415) 453-1832 (Free).

Listing of Accredited Camps in Southern California: (213) 985-5781 (Free).

Western Association of Independent Camps Director: (480) 820-1702 Listings for some of the privately owned summer camps located in the Western States. These camps are all included in the ACA listings since one of the requirements to be a WAIC camp is ACA accreditation.

Peterson's Guide: (800) 225-0261. A listing of over 1,000 summer opportunities in the United States and world-wide.

Camp Consultants: A number of counseling services for children will also offer suggestions for summer camps. Their fees are usually paid by the camps they represent.

Vincent-Curtis The Educational Register: 617-536-0100 (Free). Concentrates mostly on private schools but includes some summer camp opportunities.

Local parenting magazines often have a summer camp edition with listings for a number of camps.

Pointers for parents sending a child to summer camp:

1. Younger campers may be embarrassed about undressing in front of others. Remove this stress by finding opportunities to take the child to community pools or gymnasiums and changing in the locker room, prior to camp. Children should also be comfortable with taking showers, the primary means of bathing at most camps.

2. Prior to camp departure, avoid numerous references to how much you are going to miss your child. You'll also want to avoid talking about what you will be doing while they are gone.

3. If your child is dependent on glasses, send two pair to camp in case one set gets lost. "Keeper straps" are also a good idea for campers with glasses.

4. Plenty of waterproof suntan lotion so you don't get back a summer camp lobster.

5. Make sure your camper has writing paper and stamped pre-addressed envelopes if you want letters to come home.

6. Leave expensive cameras, watches and jewelry at home. Cheap plastic cameras work just fine and are durable enough to last through most camper experiences.

7. In letters you send to camp, ask about their experience or comment on what they have already written you. Writing that Muffin, the family pet, really misses them only contributes to home sickness.

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Getting the Most from Your Summer Camp Investment

by Jim Wiltens

"Our daughter returned from camp feeling more confident, inspired, and excited than we have seen in a long time. Now that she is back home, my husband and I want to maintain the positive energy she picked up at camp. Do you have suggestions for maintaining this positive momentum?"

Camp may be over, but the benefits don’t have to stop at the end of the summer. There are five things parents can do to maintain the positive momentum started at camp.

Reinforcing Success

When children return home, draw out their success stories. If a child performed at campfire, helped another camper overcame homesickness, learned to handle a horse, or passed a swim test, they have something to be proud of. Growth in an independent living situation gives a child a sense of resourcefulness and self-reliance.

"I took guitar lessons at camp. Some of the other kids in the class and I got together and made up a song about the counselors. It was pretty funny. At campfire we performed for the whole camp. I was worried that I’d screw up the chords but the director said it was great. Everyone laughed a lot."

Be willing to listen to stories several times. Repetition reinforces the child’s image.

In divorced families, have the primary custody parent drop the child off at camp. The second parent makes the pick-up. This gives kids a chance to tell their stories twice. Grandparents can also make a pick-up and are often great listeners.

Parents aware of a child’s successes at camp can use these stories at a later time to bolster a child’s self-confidence back home.

"Remember when you told me about the night walk at camp. No flashlight. A dark forest. You were really scared. You thought a bear was going to eat you. The next day it didn’t seem so scary. By the end of the session you were one of the campers who offered to go first. You were scared, but you learned to handle it. Just like I know you will be able to handle it now."

A month after camp, take out letters sent home. This rekindles a child’s desire to talk about their experiences. Kids enjoy hearing what they wrote and often respond. "I forgot about that, and ...."

If your camper took photos, invest in a photo album. A photo album makes memories accessible. Make it easy for your child to show pictures to relatives and friends after camp. Camp is a big step in a child’s independence –– looking back over a photo album reinforces a child’s memory of being self-reliant.

"This is when we went camping. We were only going three miles. That seemed pretty easy. But we had to carry our food, clothing and sleeping bag. It was hard for some of the kids. On the second day I offered to carry more stuff. My counselor said I was a tough backpacker."

Blow up a photo that shows a positive event at camp such as riding a horse, performing in a play, catching a fish, camping out. These are major events for a child. Put the picture in a frame on the child’s wall. All the techniques mentioned so far are designed to jog a child’s success memory. Success breeds success.

Sometimes a child’s success may not be apparent to a parent. For example, just before leaving camp, some kids go through their duffel bag and pull out their grubbiest clothing for the trip home. Why? It’s a badge of honor. It says I survived on my own. A modified version of this is campers who exaggerate the dangers or difficulties of camp to bolster their sense of independence. Sometimes parents need to take what campers say with a grain of salt.

"Toby told us about a bear that roamed through camp every night. Getting across the campground to the bathroom sounded like a life and death gauntlet. Talking with older campers, we found that deer were regular visitors, but no confirmed bear sightings from other than younger campers. By the way, Toby wants to return to camp."

The grubby clothing and stories of adversity are ways of saying I can handle it. Parents who go ballistic over a dirty T shirt, or respond to stories, "That’s terrible," are missing the message. Kids are looking for recognition of their ability to deal with the situation.

Continuing Competence

If your child enjoyed music, sports, martial arts, drama, art, crafts, or being in nature, find a way for them to continue their development. Camp plants seeds that can be nourished the rest of the year.

In some families children feel competitive with siblings or even parents. At camp, the chance to learn something outside the family domain may be needed to give a sense of competency. Be willing to encourage your child’s newfound activity.

"We are a horse family and expected Marian to follow along with our interests. I think she’s always felt inferior to her sister who has won many riding awards. When Marian returned from camp she was excited about windsurfing. We made arrangements to rent a windsurfer at a local lake. We were impressed with her ability and she was obviously pleased when she had a chance to teach us some of what she had learned."

Keep Relationships Alive

Relationship skills are one of the most important skills learned in camp. Keep relationships alive. You can do this by attending camp reunions, or if kids have made friends that live near-by, plan a get-together. Remember that friendships formed at camp are often active. Plan a get-together that includes an activity like attending a Sharks game, visiting the beach at Santa Cruz, or biking on the paths at Shoreline.

Many camps hire foreign staff who appreciate a place to stay after camp. If your child bonds with a counselor, you might offer that counselor a place to stay for several days after camp. Often the counselor will have nice things to say about the child, which bolsters the child’s self-image. A counselor who lives locally may be invited over for dinner.


"After camp, Mary was a lot more helpful around the house––for about two weeks––then she drifted back to her old behavior."

Why is it that kids will shovel horse manure at camp, but they won’t take out the garbage at home? First you need to understand three characteristics of camp chores: (1) They are expected at the outset, (2) There is a set schedule, and (3) camp chores are a social affair. If you want the work ethic initiated at camp to return home, you need to copy the pattern. Set aside a regular time period when chores are expected to be done. When possible, create family teams to do chores: cleaning the dishes, sorting laundry, doing yard work, washing the car, cleaning the garage. Doing chores socially offers a time to talk and tasks seem to go faster with company. Set up this pattern within several days of your children returning from camp while they are still used to the routine.

Here’s a simple chore to start the process on a child’s return home. When opening the camp trunk or laundry bag, why should you have all the clean-up fun? Share the chore of cleaning up after camp. It is also a chance to hear about a camper’s adventures. It’s amazing how a stain or ripped pants can jog the memory.

Comfortable with Change

Camp has immersed your child in new experiences: new friends, new activities, a unique living situation, and a new environment. Successfully maneuvering in this new world is a great feeling. "When we came to camp to pick Roger up, he looked a foot taller." You want to build on that extra "foot." What you want to build is a sense of confidence for handling new situations. Do this by maintaining the momentum started at camp. In the three months after returning from camp, plan three new experiences. Your family could go to the Exploratorium, planetarium, or aquarium. See a play at a local theater. Join a community service club. Volunteer in a soup kitchen. Look at the calendar of events in BAP to get ideas, and ask for your child’s input. What you are doing is extending the feeling of being able to deal with change from camp back to home. And being able to deal with change will be a plus in our accelerating world.

If you like the results you see in the first year of camp, sign up early for next year. An early sign up gives your child something to look forward to. It encourages friends to contact each other to arrange to be in the same session. The growth benefits from the second year of camp are often more impressive than the first year, as kids are now over the jitters, know more what to expect, and feel more confident.

Write Good Letters

During summer camp, a good letter from home can help lessen feelings of homesickness. A well written letter from home focuses kids on being resourceful. Here’s an example of a short but good letter:

The camp brochure had so many activities offered, and I’m wondering which ones you chose. I know you talked about sailing so I’ve enclosed several magazines on sailing, and a book, The Dove, about a boy who sailed around the world.

Dad says he has some questions for you:

What did Paul Revere say at the end of his ride?

What do sea monsters eat?
Fish and ships.

I bet you’re going to have all kinds of stories to tell us. We are looking forward to your first letter. See you soon.

Love Mom and Dad

This letter does everything right. It focuses the child on his experience by asking questions. The book and magazine sent with the letter bolster the child’s interests at camp. These items can be shared with other campers which helps develop friendships. The jokes are a great touch, as the child will undoubtedly go out and tell them to friends. A good laugh helps. The parent’s letter sends a message that the parents care but they avoid writing, "We miss you." Telling kids how much they are missed only triggers a sense of homesickness. You want your letter to convey love and your pride in their steps towards independence.

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When is the Right Time to Send Your Child to an Overnight Camp?

by Jim Wiltens

Ms. Roberts couldn’t decide whether to send her son to summer school or summer camp. "After all," said Ms. Roberts, "he’s just thirteen and has a number of years where he could still attend camp." She asked my opinion, as a camp director and friend. I replied, "Your son will get the biggest benefits a resident camp has to offer, between the ages of 10 and 13, the tween years. Changes occurring in the tweens magnify the impact of the summer camp experience, turning it into a concentrated learning experience."

In the tween years a resident camp is going to contribute independence, tolerance of diversity, mentors, and enhanced self-esteem.

Camp Provides Supervised Independence

During the tweens, mental and physical changes trigger a need for independence from the family. Summer camp provides a natural outlet for this independence. Camp is one of the few experiences in our society where children live outside of the home environment for weeks at a time. Summer camp expands a child’s boundaries, while simultaneously providing the supervision a child needs.

Some parents feel uncomfortable with encouraging this growing independence. Parents often comment, "My child is ready for camp, but I’m not." The thing to keep in mind is that this transition is natural. Trying to bottle it up only causes more pressure. By anticipating independence, parents can direct energy in a positive direction before it becomes explosive. Camp is one way to direct that energy so that the parent/child relationship matures with fewer struggles.

A signal that tweens are entering their independent phase is a tendency towards more arguments. It is a phase similar to the period when a younger child sings Barney’s theme song incessantly. In the tween years children discover logic and want to debate everything. These debates are a child’s way of developing reasoning ability, but parents see it more as a test of patience. Summer camp is a vacation for both tweens and parents who need a respite from the battering ram of juvenile logic. At camp, kids get a perspective of living partly on their own. Parents often comment that this perspective translates into more appreciation for Mom and Dad when a camper returns home.

Camp Offers Role Models

The tween years are also a time when fantasy heroes are set aside for champions of flesh and blood. Posters of super-athletes, rock stars, and actors adorn bedroom walls. Up to this point parents were the ultimate power in a child’s life. Now the focus shifts, and tweens look for identity and power outside the family. While the idealized poster hero is influential, closeness to a mentor has more impact. Tweens are constructing a personality from sources other than the family, and it is important they be around respected people they can relate to. Counselors and instructors at camp can act as positive role models. Children may pick up on the kindness of a favorite counselor or aspire to the skills of an expert instructor. The intensity of the 24 hour living arrangement further magnifies the impact a mentor has on a tween.

Camp Diversity Expands Viewpoints

In the tween years children become less ego-centric. These are the years when children begin to see things from another viewpoint. Children raised in a homogenous environment may experience a hardening of the viewpoint. If all your friends are the same as you are, difference are not as easily tolerated. Multiple viewpoints available at camp help tweens learn to deal with diversity. Children from different ethnic, socio-economic, and geographical backgrounds become friends during the camp stay. Many camps hire international staff which further expands a camper’s viewpoint. Learning to appreciate and respect other people’s viewpoints nutures a developing social conscience.

Image development

Another benefit of starting camp in the tween years relates to self-esteem. A child who starts camp in the tween years has the potential of attending camp several summers before her fourteenth birthday. This means the child has several years to develop skill in activities available at camp. By the time the early-camp-starter is nearing fourteen, she is proficient in camp programs like riding, windsurfing, music, or drama. The timing is ideal. At fourteen, children experience a strong urge to feel special. Competency in previously acquired skills gives a child this feeling. A sense of uniqueness is a major ingredient in budding self-esteem. This benefit of summer camp comes with repeated early exposure.

While a resident summer camp can have a positive impact on children at any age, the tween years will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

Indications of whether your child is ready for a resident camp:

1. Has your child spent periods of time away from family without feeling anxious? Experiences like weekend science camps, sleep-overs, and trips with family friends provide some information?

2. Has your child been homesick and learned to deal with it?

3. Is your child comfortable in the dark, or does he rely on a night light, calling out to parents for reassurance at bedtime, or repeated voiced fears?

4. Does your child get a good night’s sleep in new locations like friend’s houses, outdoors, and on family vacations?

5. Is your child happy with eating a wide variety of foods? Some children won’t eat breakfast unless they have Captain Crunch, and others turn their noses up at meals because, "It’s not like my Dad cooks it."

6. When your child has a problem, can he express his needs to someone other than a family member in a calm manner?

7. Does your child behave normally around new acquaintances, either adults or children?

8. Is there an expectation that your child follow rules and contribute to chores as a member of the family? Are any of these chores more sophisticated than taking out the garbage?

9. Does your child display an independent nature? A child who takes the initiative to try out for a team, start a wood working project in the garage, offer to work for others, or open a lemonade stand is showing self-sufficiency.

10. Does your child want to go to camp?

Summer Camp and College

Some children have never been away from home for prolonged periods until they leave for college. Many of them will experience college shock syndrome. The stress of academics and living away from home for the first time is a blow for many freshman. Children who have experienced the dormitory of summer camp for eight weeks, overcome feelings of homesickness as children, and dealt with a diverse mix of people in a 24 hour living situation will experience less stress in their first critical year of college. Look at summer camp as a college preparatory investment.

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Dealing with Homesickness

by Jim Wiltens

Homesick tears dribbled down 12 year old Melinda's cheeks. "I'm not going to make it," snuffled Melinda, "two weeks is too long. You have to call my parents and tell them to come get me." Jennifer, Melinda's cabin counselor, listened compassionately. Jennifer was experienced in comforting homesick campers. In Melinda's case, it would be a difficult process. That's because Melinda's loving parents had unwittingly set their daughter up to fail.

Homesickness, especially in a summer camp environment, is a challenging emotional experience. The following guidelines will show you how to avoid parent pitfalls that aggravate homesickness. You will also discover how to prepare your child to handle this common childhood ailment. Even if your child doesn't go to camp, you can use these tips to help with separation anxiety during sleep-overs, vacations with relatives, and school sponsored trips.

Let's Make a Deal

Within twenty minutes of arriving at camp, Melinda was homesick and asked to go home. When Jennifer, a counselor, suggested they give it a day or two, Melinda replied, "My parents said if I didn't like it they would come get me." To add weight to her claim she withdrew an envelope from her pocket. Written in large letters across the envelope was the word, URGENT! Inside was a letter that said Melinda should be sent home if she was homesick, if she was unhappy, if kids teased her, if she didn't like the food… It was a long list. Before leaving for camp, Melinda had negotiated for this letter as a condition of going to camp. The camp directors interviewed for this article were in unanimous agreement on how this should have been handled prior to camp.

"We ask parents not to make a deal with kids in regards to going to camp," said Scott Whipple, director of Mountain Camp II. "Deals sound like this, 'Try it for a few days. If you don't like it we will come and pick you up.' This Let's-Make-a-Deal-Approach undermines the process of learning to handle homesickness."

Parents make deals in the hope that camp will be so awesome that their child won't experience homesickness. The reality is that camp, as awesome as it can be, represents change. There are new friends, new food, a new place to sleep, new rules, and new activities. Change is a major attraction of camp, but it also means that children may need to manage uncomfortable emotions associated with change. If children have a deal, they focus on leaving rather than management.

In the book Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman points out that a successful life comes from learning to manage emotions. "People who are poor in this ability are constantly battling feelings of distress," writes Goleman, "while those who excel in it can bounce back far more quickly from life's setbacks and upsets." Homesickness is one of childhood's upsets.

What is Homesickness?

Cows and homesick kids have something in common, they ruminate. Rumination means to chew. Cows chew cud, homesick kids chew on what they miss. They miss their parents, they miss their bed, they miss pets and friends, they miss their toys and TV. In the book Learned Optimism, Dr. Martin Seligman explains that obsessive rumination is the root of depression. When our minds repeatedly chew on what we lack, negative feelings are amplified. It helps if parents think of homesickness as a window of opportunity. It can be a chance to practice budding skills of emotional management in a caring camp environment. If you rescue kids, they retain a sense of helplessness when it comes to managing emotions.

What Message are You Sending?

"Some parents need to be needed so much they are waiting for the opportunity to rescue their children," said Whipple. "We had a camper, who was getting along and making new friendships. But at night, before bed, she would begin to miss her family. Within two days of camp she asked to call her mother. Her mom responded by leaving at 2:00 AM and arriving at camp at 5:00 AM [an Indianapolis 500 raceway record considering the distances involved]. Parents think they are telling kids they care by coming and picking them up. What they are really saying is, 'You are not able to make it on your own.'"

Preparing Parents to Deal With Homesickness

When a parent receives a sobbing call from camp or a letter pleading to return home, it takes resolve to tell your child, "Honey, I love you. I know that being homesick is hard. I also know you are strong enough to work it out. I'll pick you up––at the end of camp." This kind of resolve requires advanced preparation. Understanding that your camp has a plan for dealing with homesickness can help allay parental anxiety.

When Nancy Nighbert, director of River Way Ranch Camp was asked how they deal with homesickness, she gave a specific example. "We had a ten year old boy named John who got homesick before he even arrived at camp. One of the counselors noticed him crying on the bus and called ahead to tell us John might need more attention. I had the camp mom greet him and take him into lunch. She sat at his table and asked questions. It was John's first time at camp. He said that sometimes when he slept over at a friend's house, his mom had to come get him. The camp mom also discovered that he was interested in a number of activities including waterskiing. So she had the water ski instructor buddy up with him. John got on the teaching boom with the instructor. He had pictures taken and that night we guided him through letter writing so he could tell his parents what he was doing. He was proud of his accomplishments. "I want to go home" turned into staying for another two week session. If you trust the camp, you can maintain the resolve to tell your child that you know they will be able to make it. It also helps to understand that homesickness follows predictable patterns.

There's a Rhythm to Homesickness

Days on which homesickness is most likely to occur include the first three days of camp when separation anxiety is the highest, rest days, and transitional days. This is when children ask to use the phone or write a letter home. Here is one such letter: "I hate it here. All the counselors are jerks. I hate the food. I don't have any friends. There's nothing to do and they make us do chores all day long. I just want to come home." The parent of this letter-writer called the camp, obviously concerned, and asked to speak to her daughter. Her daughter said, "Oh that was in the beginning. I really like it here now." Parents need to understand that when a child is homesick everything is grey. This grey is usually temporary.

Days on which mail arrives can also trigger homesickness. At one point in Melinda's stay at camp she received a letter from home. She removed a ziplock bag, read the letter, and then isolated herself from other campers. When Jennifer asked what was in the bag Melinda held out a hanky scented with her Mom's perfume. "My Mom sent it so I wouldn't forget her," offered a teary Melinda.

"Some parents feel guilty when they send their child to camp," said Tamara Adams, director of Emandahl. "Writing, 'I miss you,' or 'The house just isn't the same without you,' sends a message. Parents think these phrases say that they love their child." With some campers it contributes to a feeling of guilt, "I'm having a good time without my parents, is that O.K?" In letters to campers it is better to ask, "What activities are you doing?" "Who is your counselor?" Concentrate on the positive aspects of the child's experience.

Homesickness also appears on an hourly schedule. Early morning and bedtime, times when children are traditionally with parents, are prime times for homesickness. "Homesickness is most common in the evening," said Adams. "We have counselors read bedtime stories like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or The Hobbit. An involving story gets camper's minds off being homesick." Packing a few good books for camp is a good idea.

Suggestions for Managing Homesickness

It's natural for some children to feel the emotional pangs that come with separation. When the twinge hits, the child can respond passively or proactively. Proactivity leads to greater growth.

"Talk about homesickness," advised Adams. "Tell children it is a mutual missing, but it is important to be able to get through a session of camp, they need to handle being away from home." Be realistic about homesickness. "A golden rule at camp is never tell a camper he isn't feeling anything," said Townsend. "It is something." If campers understand how this something makes them feel bad, they have a better chance of dealing with it. Explain rumination and give it a label. Then tell kids some of the ways they can break the rumination cycle.

Be active. Children who surrender to homesickness by retreating to their bunk or staying in their cabin all day add to their misery. This is when rumination takes over. Adam Stein, director of Walton's Grizzly Lodge, said, "Down time can be a breeding ground for homesickness." "Sometimes it helps to set up a series of goals at camp," added Whipple, "Break down a skill into manageable goals and have kids check in with their counselors to monitor progress." Encourage kids to talk about what they are looking forward to like campfire, going fishing, a hike, or earning an award.

The activity rule doesn't apply if a child is exhausted. "When kids are really tired they get homesick," said Andrew Townsend, director of Kennolyn. "In this case they may need a quiet stay for an afternoon in the health cottage with a glass of juice and a good book."

If your child feels homesick, encourage talking to a counselor. "We had a ten year old boy named Scott," related Townsend. "He was crying and refused to leave his bunk for activities. I went to his cabin and started reading a book. Casually, I tried to strike up a conversation. It took 25 questions until I hit the right one. I asked if he had pets. It turns out that he had lost a pet rabbit prior to camp. He wanted to know if his rabbit had come home. So we called home. When he knew what was going on he felt a lot better. It also came out that he hadn't gotten an animal care class he wanted to take at camp, so we signed him up. Once you make a connection with a child, it makes it easier for them to explain how they feel." Parents can prime that connection by talking about it prior to camp. When kids actively seek help, counselors will check in with the child regularly, assist making friends, and offer advice to help the child deal with homesickness.

When Homesickness Is Overwhelming

Sometimes homesickness is debilitating. Kids can develop physical symptoms: upset stomach, difficulty sleeping, headaches, and anxiety attacks. A variety of situations at home can contribute to homesickness stress such as an impending divorce, a serious illness in the family, and moving. On average, the private camps interviewed send home one or two children a season due to homesickness. Often times these children demand that parents honor the pre-camp deal they made. Townsend said, "It's important for parents to realize that there is no incentive for a camp director to pretend that a child is having a great time when they are not." If a camper is really miserable and nothing seems to help, directors will call parents.

Oh, by the way, Melinda made it through two weeks at camp. There were some rough spots, but her parents in consultation with the director felt that their daughter would benefit by sticking it out. Even Melinda at the end said, "I feel pretty good about making it the whole way. I learned something about myself."

Are You Ready to Send Your Child To Sleep-Away Camp?

* Can you name three valuable benefits your child will get from going to camp?
* Do you feel confident that the camp handles homesickness in a positive way?
* Have you avoided making deals? "We will pick you up if you don't like it," We will buy you a video game," "We will send a big care package every day."
* If you get a "rescue me letter," do you have confidence in the camp and your child that he can get through it successfully?
* Have you prepared you child to deal with homesickness by providing suggestions for what she can do?

Recommended Reading

Summer Fun: The Parent's Complete Guide to Day Camps, Overnight Camps, Specialty Camps and Teen Tours by Marion Borden. Has a chapter on how to deal with homesickness.

Avoiding Homesickness: Sure Fire Ways to Beat the Sleep-Away Camp Blues by Bibi Schweitzer.

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