Sean Nienow, an advisor with the National Summer Camp Association, said it really depends on what the family is looking for in a camp experience, but the first step when considering a sleep-away camp (versus a day program) is to make sure both parent and child are ready for a separation, sometimes of weeks or months.
"It's normal that there will be some measure of homesickness. But parents have to ask, 'Is the child ready to learn new skills and meet new people?' Usually yes, they are."
Often it's the parents who aren't ready to let their child go, Nienow said, and initial bouts of homesickness will quickly pass. However, "is there value in imposing camp on a child who is completely not interested or ready? Probably not," he added. Most camps start accepting children around age 7, he said.
Local YMCA and church camps can be short, lasting about one week, while more traditional sleep-away camps can run for several weeks or the whole summer. Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Child Psychiatrist Richard Shaw said rather than simply going by the child's age, parents need to consider the individual needs and personality of their child to determine whether he or she is ready to go away to camp and not be overly influenced by whether his or her peers are ready.
"Kids may not be at the same developmental age as their friends," he said.
Shaw said signs that a child is ready to go off to sleep-away camp include initiating basic self-care such as teeth-brushing, tying shoes and hygiene, making friends on their own and being able to trust adults in authority. Participating in sleepovers with friends or staying with relatives away from home successfully are also good signs of camp readiness, he said.
On the other hand, "if a child has never slept away from home, is afraid of the dark or is very shy or a picky eater," he or she may have a hard time adjusting to camp life, Shaw said.
Though camp can be a wonderful experience in socialization and confidence-building for shy or anxious kids, Shaw recommends preparing them for camp by sending them on one-night overnights or weekend programs first, or to camp with a good friend to ease the transition.
Nienow recommends a more traditional camp experience, offering a wide variety of activities for first-time campers, especially those who come from urban areas or who otherwise don't spend much time in the great outdoors.
"Some kids may have never swam in a lake, slept in the woods or rowed in a rowboat," until camp, he said. For children with specific interests, a camp dedicated to one hobby, sport or topic may be a dream come true. However, parents should be sure their child really wants to focus intently on one interest rather than trying the more classic general-camp route.
"Choosing a specialty camp really comes down to making sure the child really and truly has the desire to go and devote themselves to this intense, in-depth experience," Nienow said. "If they're at a basketball camp, they're going to be playing basketball four or six hours a day."
National Camp Association staff members such as Nienow offer free advice to any parent looking to choose a camp. A quick visit to www.summercamp.org puts the reader in touch with a variety of articles and tips on the camp-selection process.
Nienow said parents concerned with finding the right camp for their child should go directly to the source and check out interesting camps on an individual, in-depth basis. Speaking with the head of the camp can go a long way toward determining if the camp is a good choice, especially if the child has special needs or the parent has particular concerns.
"Check out what each camp is offering and make sure it's a good fit for your child. Talk to the staff and the director; they want to talk to parents and make sure it's a good fit and that the child has a good time," he said.
No matter what type of camp a child attends, the experience will make a lifelong impression, Nienow said.
"Any adult who ever went to camp as a child remembers it. For many kids, it's their first time away from mom and dad, their first taste of independence, learning a new sport, finding a first love. They are impacted for life," he said.