When is a child ready for overnight camp?

Daniel C. Britt/THE WASHINGTON POST - Kids gather around the nightly fire at Camp Fantastic in Front Royal.

My daughter, all four feet and 45 pounds of her, is asking to go to an overnight Girl Scout camp this summer. Actually, she’s begging.

I’m torn. It’s only two nights and not far from home, and it promises tons of fun activities. On the other hand, she’s 6 and only in kindergarten, and has never spent the night away from home with anyone but her grandparents. We are well into camp registration season, so I need to decide soon whether to let her go on her first great solo ad­ven­ture or wait a year or two.

How can you tell if your child is ready for a sleep-away camp? It’s difficult to set a hard-and-fast age because kids vary so much developmentally. So I asked Peg Smith, CEO for the American Camp Association, how parents can make the decision and how they can prepare children for their first overnight camp.

The average age for a first trip to overnight camp is between 7 and 9 years old, Smith said, but it really depends on the child. A mature 6-year-old might be ready to go, while an immature 10-year-old might not be able to handle it.

Smith said parents should consider whether their child has been away from them overnight before, either with friends or family members, and how she has handled those separations.

“A lot of it has to do with the child’s expectations,” Smith said. “It depends if they have friends who are going, and if they have had these separations before. Really, it’s the child’s expectations that will drive the experience, and determine your confidence in them. I remember my son wanted to go to camp when he was about 7, and I had this bubble over my head saying ‘you’re not ready to do that.’ But he was.”

Talking to the child about camp and what her expectations are can help you decide if she understands what camp is, and if she is ready to go, Smith said. Parents should also compare their child’s age with the ages of the other campers to make sure it will be a good fit, with a small counselor-to-camper ratio for the youngest children. One counselor for six children is a good size for kids ages 6 to 8, Smith said.

“Your confidence really falls into two areas: Your child’s ability to manage the separation, and your confidence in the camp,” said Smith, who recommends parents visit the site www.campparents.org for suggestions on how to find the right camp for your child, preparing her for the separation and dealing with homesickness.

If you decide to send her to camp, find out how the camp deals with homesickness, which is a natural part of going away, Smith said. But don’t tell your child that she can call you if she gets sad or homesick, because that will set her up with the idea that she will be scared or lonely. Instead, talk about all of the fun things she will be doing, either things she already likes to do, or new activities. Focus on the positive things that she will get from camp.

Bring on the s’mores, I guess. If my daughter is this enthusiastic, I might have to take a chance and let her try it.

How old was your child when you sent him to camp for the first time? Tell us about your experience in the comments section.

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