Ensure your kids are happy summer campers

Tamara Browning

Eydee Schultz of Springfield, Ill., was just out of third grade when she went to a two-week, overnight camp.

Schultz’s parents had prepared her for the temporary separation well — maybe a little too well.

“When my parents came to visit me halfway through, I said, ‘Hi, Mom. Hi, Dad,’ and I went to play. They had driven seven hours each way to come and see me,” said Schultz, who has worked with camps for more than 25 years.

With deadlines coming fast to register for summer camps this year, parents have a lot to think about before sending their children off to make memories.

What kinds of camps are suitable for the kids? How many camps are reasonable for one summer? Overnight versus day camp? How far from home? Should siblings go to camps together?

Here’s some advice from people who work to make summer camp meaningful and fun.

Mental preparation

Parents and guardians planning to send their children to camp this summer should first prepare their children for the experience, said Schultz, who leads Camp Care-A-Lot, a free, one-week residential camp based in central Illinois for children from low- or no-income families.

“Explain what camp is, why the children are going to camp — in other words, what are the benefits to the child?” Schultz said. “Another thing the parents can do with the children is say, …‘What do you think it can do for you?’”

That helps kids feel that they’re part of the decision-making process, improving the chances of their having positive experiences, according to the American Camp Association.

The right reasons

“Sending children to camp for the right reason is very important,” Schultz said. “The right reason is for them to learn skills and take part in activities that they would not normally be able to do at home or in school or in other outside activities.”

Camp is 50 percent learning how to live, work and play cooperatively and 50 percent learning how to function independently, Schultz said.

YMCA camps try to make sure that kids become better people by emphasizing the Y’s core values — caring, honesty, respect and responsibility — said Patty Knepler, the Springfield YMCA’s marketing director.

“They’re not just coming to camp as baby-sitting or something fun to do. They’re improving themselves, becoming better citizens and better volunteers,” Knepler said.

Parents need to weigh the positives and negatives of sending their children to camp in light of family crises.

“You want to make sure that the child doesn’t feel like they’re being sent away against their will,” Schultz said.

In those cases, there might be better options for the child, such as sending the child to a

relative’s or friend’s house.

Day camp or overnight

Some children are ready at a very young age to spend a night away from home; others still prefer the routine and familiarity of their own beds at age 12, according to “Turn Your Homesick Child into a Happy Camper,” an article posted on

“The one thing they need to decide is should it be a day camp only, or is it all right for it to be a residential camp?” Schultz said.

Charlie Caspari, section executive for the American Camp Association-St. Louis, agreed.

“They need to think about whether a child can be away from home happily for five, seven, 14 days — however long the camp session might last,” Caspari said.

Time invested

Parents should decide the number of weeks or days their children will go to camp.

“There are children of all ages that have different maturity levels and have different feelings about being able to leave home,” Schultz said.

A good way to start out a child who might suffer from separation anxiety is to send him to a weekend camp.

“Frequently, I have found that the children can be away longer than some of the parents think they can be away,” said Schultz, who notes that parents sometimes have a more difficult time being separated from their children for the first time.

“In other words, the children get to camp, they’re having so much fun, they’re learning so much that although they may miss home, they can handle a little bit longer than some of the parents think that they can.”

Which camp?

Private and public camps abound, and there are camps for all kinds of interests.

Some camps focus on specific activities, such as sports or academic subjects. Some camps cater to children with specific limitations. There are foreign exchange camps, where kids go to other countries. Some camps in the United States accept children and counselors from all over the world.

“There’s just a bazillion, trillion camps out there,” Schultz said.

And while expanding a child’s horizons is one of the main reasons he or she is sent to camp, kids can have a miserable time if they simply aren’t enjoying anything, according to Bruce Muchnick’s article “How to Help Your Child Have a Great Time at Camp” on

“You don’t want to send your child to a camp out in the woods if they don’t like the woods,” Schultz said. “Send them to a camp in the city where they’re doing field trips.”

Parents should call camp administrators to ask them what the camps specialize in. They also should discuss their children’s strengths and weaknesses and how the camp may benefit them.

Camp knowledge

“If a parent really wants to give their child an opportunity to go to camp, then it’s the camp’s responsibility to also help out,” Schultz said. “In other words, put the child on the phone with somebody that has to do with the camp. Explain what camp is all about.”

Parents should check out the camp director’s qualifications.

For parents considering camp at the YMCA, which mostly has day camps, Knepler suggested getting a day pass to look into it.

“Take their kids swimming. Get them familiar with the building. Let them take a look at where they’re going to be for the day,” Knepler said.

Camp safety

Parents should check to see if a camp has a risk-management program and emergency procedures in place, Schultz said.

They should make sure the staff has cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first-aid training, plus that staff ratios are correct, said Jennifer Gaffney, camp director at the Springfield YMCA.

Communication should be open between the camping staff and parents, Gaffney said.

Some camps, particularly bigger private ones, are online so that parents may look daily to see what’s going, Schultz said.

Camp payment

Most public camps have scholarships for campers unable to pay the full amount.

Schultz suggested parents talk to camp administrators to negotiate payment — paying half or sending two children for the price of one or one-and-a-half.

“Public camps are going to be a lot less expensive than the private camps,” Schultz said.

Some organizations give families scholarships to fund kids’ camps. Parents might look into their own workplaces and youth agencies for help. Sometimes, if a child is part of a youth agency, he may go to that agency’s camp for a discount.

Knepler said the YMCA doesn’t turn any child away for the inability to pay.

“We’re going to give every child a camping experience. We may not be able to scholarship them for the whole summer, but they’re going to be able to at least have a camping experience this summer,” Knepler said.

“A lot of camps will have things like scholarship funds available if a family feels they can’t do it," Caspari said. "That doesn’t mean that every family will get it, but it’s something that’s worth asking for if they think they need that.”

The State Journal-Register