Tips on Sending Your Child to Their First Summer Camp

Social workers and veteran camp directors weigh in on how to handle sending your child to their first summer camp.
Photograph from Adobe Stock

Attending summer camp for the first time can bring a mixed bag of emotions for kids. The excitement of meeting new friends and having fun at the lake or around the campfire can come with an apprehension of leaving home, be it for lengthy overnight stays or even just for the day.

We spoke with experts at Bloomfield Child and Family Counseling, Tamarack Camps, and Willoway Day Camp about how first-time campers and their parents can best prepare for a summer separation.

What’s a good age for children to begin attending camp? What makes them more ready at this age?

Carly Weinstock, Tamarack Camps: Tamarack offers programs to kids coming into second grade at the youngest. I always recommend to a parent to send your kid for the first time for our shortest session, which is 10 days. There’s no need to put them into longer sessions right away, even if they feel they’re ready.

Jessica Cortez, Bloomfield Child and Family Counseling: Gauge your child’s readiness. Being the oldest child and the first one to go away to camp might make it harder. Culturally, some kids go to overnight camp as early as second grade around Bloomfield Hills (like Tamarack Camps for Jewish families). That becomes their norm. Most sports camps, outdoor sleepaway camps, etc., begin in upper elementary or sixth grade.

How can a parent best prepare a child emotionally for what could be a first-time separation?

Cortez: “Front-loading.” Having a visual like a calendar to count down how many days until they travel to camp. Make something like a key chain or a bracelet for your child to wear that reminds them of you. Give them autonomy in picking out things to take to camp.

Weinstock: Practice having your child be given autonomy at home, such as having them do things like pick out their clothes, get dressed and ready on their own, sleepovers away from home.

How far in advance should a parent talk to their child about attending camp?

Cortez: At least three weeks, all the way up to the summer before their first time going to camp. Parents can help by doing things like making a checklist of all the things they need to pack.

Weinstock: I don’t think there’s a time too far in advance to talk to your child about going to camp. Talk about camp next summer even if they aren’t going this summer.

How much should a parent take their child’s feelings into account before sending them?

Cortez: You know your child best. If you have an anxious kiddo, and if sleepovers have been hard, I would not have them use camp as an anxiety exposure.

Jonathon Koenigsberg, Willoway Day Camp: Talk with your camper to hear what their apprehension is. Talk with the camp director to be sure this is a good fit. Take a tour of the camp. … We want to work with you and your child to make sure they are having a good time.

Weinstock: Their feelings on camp are important. At Tamarack we have family camp, so even if you come to family camp and then do a year of prepping for your child to come to camp on their own next summer, I still would not force them if they’re against it.

How might a parent deal with a child experiencing homesickness at camp?

Cortez: You know your child best. Try having a video chat with them. See if they can make it the rest of the day, then check in again tomorrow to see how they feel. You don’t need to swoop in and feel like you need to save them from something that’s not an emergency.

Koenigsberg: Our staff works one-on-one with the camper to help them become more comfortable at camp. We partner with parents to help the camper be successful. We will be in contact with parents during the summer to help the camper succeed.

Meet the Experts

Jessica Cortez, a licensed Master of Social Work, is the founder of Bloomfield Child and Family Counseling and has been working in a private- practice setting for 12 years. She treats kids with anxiety, depression, ADHD, and other behavioral problems.

Jonathon Koenigsberg is a member of the senior leadership at Willoway Day Camp. A former Willoway camper and a longtime staff member, Koenigsberg has worked as a camp director and camp professional for more than 30 years. The camp, which was founded in 1969, has a 16-acre campus that includes an animal farm, nature trails, a rock-climbing wall, and much more. While it is a day camp, overnight stays occur weekly.

Carly Weinstock is the camp director at Tamarack Camps, a Jewish sleepaway camp that was founded in 1902. She has worked there since 2007 in a variety of roles. To provide information for this story, she collaborated with Danielle Tagai, a LMSW and the director of mental health and special needs at Tamarack. The camps offer a wide range of overnight programs located across Michigan wilderness areas for kids and families that aim to help campers “grow, build confidence, strengthen Jewish identity and create lifelong friendships.”

This story is from the March 2024 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.