If your kid’s going to overnight summer camp for the first time, you’ve both got an adventure ahead of you. Summer camp can do wonders for kids’ self-confidence and independence, not to mention being a blast for both of you (hello kid-free time!).
But before you can kick back with your lemonade, you’ve got some preparation to do. If you’ve already seen the summer camp’s packing list, you know what I’m talking about. But it’s all doable — all you need is a basic plan and a couple relaxed weeks to carry it out.
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Preparing for your kid’s first time at summer camp: the big picture
The keys to getting your kid ready for summer camp without driving yourself nuts are to start early and stay calm.
1. Now is not too early to start packing.
Most summer camps publish a camp packing list months in advance. The earlier you begin tossing supplies into a big box or the corner of your kid’s room, the less last-minute scrambling you’ll have to do. Now is not too soon to begin the search for the sunglasses and bandanas.
2. Stay as calm as you can.
That probably sounds like “don’t worry” — the most useless advice ever. Consider this a gentle, no-guilt reminder that the more worked up you get about packing, the more likely your kid will pick up on your tension.
Look, nobody’s perfect. Packing for summer camp is a big job, and expecting yourself to do it with a smile on your face the entire time is unrealistic. All the more reason to spread the job out over a long time, and break it into manageable 15-minute chunks. Plus, anything you forget can probably be borrowed or procured at the camp store.
Packing tips for first-time summer campers
There’s not much I can add to the packing list your summer camp has already provided you. But I can offer you some advice that will make the process go easier (and cheaper).
3. Pack old clothes and gear.
Any summer camp worth its salt is tough on clothes and gear. When my son came home from his first time away at summer camp, his stuff was trashed. Much of it was unsalvageable. As I like to say, “Good! It meant you had fun!”
Bottom line: pack old, worn clothes. Pack towels, sheets and pillowcases you don’t mind throwing away. If the cabins are rustic, I might make an exception for a good-quality sleeping bag (staying warm and comfortable at night is crucial to one’s happiness at camp), but otherwise, head to Goodwill.
4. Involve your kid in every step of the packing.
Your kid will be in charge of her stuff after you drop her off at camp, so she needs to know exactly what’s in her bag(s) and where it’s packed.
She’ll also be in charge of packing it all up when it’s time to come home, so give her some practice now — you need the help, anyway.
5. Get a label maker or buy pre-printed labels.
I learned about Mabel’s Labels from an old friend who’s a professional organizer. She swore by the quality and durability of these labels (especially when washed). I pretty much do what she says when it comes to getting organized, so I went ahead and bought a pack for each kid. I’m glad I did…the quality is fabulous. I still find labels in some of my kids’ things a year later.
6. Pack extra underwear, socks, and t-shirts.
Kids get dirtier and wetter at camp than anyone expects, and you never know what the laundry situation will be.
7. Double up on hats and sunglasses.
Sun protection is a must, and replacements from the camp store might be cheesy and/or expensive.
8. Make sure your kid can handle the bag himself.
Choose a bag your kid can carry, roll or drag by himself. I’m not saying he won’t have any help, but he needs to get into the mindset that his stuff is his responsibility. A lightweight duffel is simple, roomy, and squashable under a bunk.
Helping kids emotionally prepare for overnight camp
There’s the packing, and then there’s the preparing. Overnight summer camp is a big step up from a weekend sleepover. Here are some tips for helping your kid feel ready:
9. Practice independence skills before camp starts.
Your kid’s going to be managing her basic hygiene and gear by herself. If she needs practice combing her long hair or handling basic cleanup chores, give her the time to learn.
10. When talking about camp, follow your kid’s lead.
I’m famously overenthusiastic. People have made fun of me for years because I get excited to the point of goofiness. I had to put a lid on it during the weeks before camp.
Constantly hearing IT’S GONNA BE SOOOOO FUUUUUUN!!!! from me wouldn’t exactly leave room for my kids to have their own feelings and reactions. I’m lucky that neither of them were particularly anxious about going, but raising their expectations sky-high wouldn’t have helped anyone.
11. Go to the camp preview day if there is one.
I know it’s a hassle, but it’s worth it. Having a concrete picture in mind when your kid thinks “camp” helps with the jitters.
12. Get the drop-off logistics down.
Your kid will feel better on drop-off day if you are 100% clear on the details. Is she arriving at camp on a bus or are you driving? Are you walking her to her cabin or passing her off to the counselors at the entrance? Will there be lunch? Do you need to fill in a bunch of forms at arrival or can you do that ahead of time?
13. Find out the camp’s mail and care package policy.
Campers may forget to send mail, but they love to receive it. Drop a postcard or two in the mail starting the day camp begins.
Care packages are optional (seriously). If you do send one, include an inexpensive favor your kid can share with cabinmates. (I sent my son a package of mustache straws.)
14. If the camp has a no cell phone policy, trust it.
This one’s a toughie, because you want your kid to be able to reach you in an emergency. But there’s a good reason most camps ask kids to leave cell phones behind. The obvious electronic distraction would take away from the camp experience, and the direct line home makes homesickness last longer.
15. Once your kid’s away at camp, remember that no news is good news.
You did the research. You trusted the camp enough to send your kid there. You filled in all the medical and contact forms. Know that the camp staff are professionals when it comes to keeping kids safe, and at communicating when there’s a problem.
I’m not gonna lie. It was hard to be out of contact with my kid. Way harder than I expected. But the distance was so good for all of us.
And the homecoming? Well, that was the best part of all.