As spring fast approaches, it's not too soon for families to plan what the kids will be doing when school's out.
An estimated 10 million out of an eligible 55 million kids head to camp each summer, turning in their pencils and books for bonfires and tennis lessons, according to the American Camping Association. But is camp really the best option for kids?
Experts believe that under most circumstances, it is.
“Twenty years ago, people thought camp was just for a certain kind of child. Today there’s a camp for every child — introverted, extroverted, low-income,” said ACA Executive Director Peg Smith.
Smith, a mother of two adolescent boys, one introverted and one extroverted, says there are still holdovers from the “old-fashioned” view that good moms want their kids at home during the summer.
“I had one of those mothers — she felt that if she sent me off she wasn’t doing her job. Then I had to battle that same feeling: Even though my child said to me ‘I want to go to camp,’ I thought, ‘I’m a terrible parent — why does he want to go?’”
In the end, Smith, who works part-time, realized that camp was best for her and her sons — and believes this to be the case even when a mom or dad is home during the summer.
“No parent can be with their kids 24-7. Kids are risk-takers by nature — the thing about camp is it is risk-managed," she explained. "Camp has been evaluated in terms of risks, whereas my neighborhood hasn’t.”
Of course, parents should check that camps meet safety and nutrition standards and have staff trained to meet the developmental needs of kids at various ages, Smith warns.
Parents may research ACA-accredited camps, as well as see which camps offer scholarships, at acacamps.org.
But before you start sewing nametags into your child’s socks, make sure camp is a good choice for your little one, cautions Harvard psychologist Dr. Susan Linn.
"Camp can be wonderful — but some kids aren’t ready to separate. Some don’t particularly love group activities. You could also have a bad mix in a bunk or a bully in the bunk who can make things miserable,” Linn said.
All of the above applied in the case of Jason Sunshine, now a 28-year-old legal researcher. An introverted child, he found camp to be unbearably “group happy-happy.”
“I hated that they made you go swimming in freezing cold water — but the fact that I didn’t want to swim was partly because they were forcing me to do it.”
Indeed, speech therapist Jill Goldstein, 26, a childhood camper and former camp counselor and supervisor, says the worst thing you can do is force a child to go to camp when he's not ready — or make him keep going when he's unhappy.
“Camp is great for shy kids too — but don’t force them to stay if they’re crying for three weeks,” she said.
However, only 7 percent of children are at great risk of having unmanageable homesickness —and sometimes all that's needed is a switch to a different camp, according to Smith.
"In most cases it's best to ride it out — they will learn a lot about themselves," she said.
Out of the bunks for a decade now, Goldstein says she still keeps in touch with her former co-campers.
“It’s great for making binding friendships — for independence, for socializing, for separation from parents," she explained. "You get the benefits of crafts and sports that school doesn’t get to teach you — it even made going to college easier."
And despite his memories of half-frozen fried chicken and “girly” color war matches, even Sunshine said he’d send his kids to camp.
“I don’t really remember the summers when I didn’t go to camp — I was probably bored out of my mind,” he said.