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'90s Family

Camping It Up

Sure, kids can still do arts and crafts at summer camp. And gain self-esteem. But, nowadays, family togetherness and outdoor adventures are the hot tickets.


Each year, about 6 million American children go to camp. At one of 5,500 resident camps or 3,000 day camps--paying fees that range from about $15 to $100 a day--kids explore special interests from computers to origami to rope climbing. And they develop self-confidence about their ability to get along in the world outside their homes.

But sending a child off to summer camp isn't all s'mores. Both parents and children can be filled with trepidation about the experience.

Psychologists suggest parents take care to mentally prepare children for the experience. Some children as young as 7 are emotionally stable enough to handle overnight camp, but the determination must be made based on a child's maturity and ability to be separated from parents.

Dr. Fred Frankel, a psychiatrist at UCLA who works with children, says the optimal time for kids to go to a resident camp is 10, when they are cognitively ready and when the demands of middle school have already made them more independent than younger children. All experts agree, however, that the best sign of readiness for overnight camp, regardless of your child's age, is your child's ability to sleep over at relatives' or friends' houses without frantically telephoning at 3 a.m. to ask for a ride home.

"Each child is different and you have to know your child," says Michael Popkin, a child and family therapist in Atlanta who started his daughter in overnight camp when she was 7. "Children are almost never too young to start day camp and many start at 3. With overnight camp you must distinguish between one week, two weeks and longer, sometimes the whole summer, to determine what would be best for your child."

Becca Cowan Johnson, a Santa Cruz psychologist and former camp director, says parents should try leaving their child several nights at a relative's house as a trial run for camps that last a week or longer. Some day camps also have overnight stays, she says, which also ready a child for overnight camp.

To prepare your child, experts recommend visiting the camp ahead of time and watching videotapes of camp in progress. Have your child talk to a child who's attended the camp, or send the child to camp with a friend. Pack familiar objects and clothes (teddy bears, favorite blankets, baseball caps and pillows are popular). Psychologists also say to talk to the child about what is going to happen at camp, emphasizing the activities the child is interested in. If a child appears to have fears, gently encourage him or her to talk about them and give reassurance.

Most children experience homesickness at camp, but it usually dissipates quickly and camp staff and counselors are trained to help them through it. "I told my daughter that camp is like spending the night with 10 of her girlfriends for a week," Popkin says. "I wouldn't talk about homesickness when you first start talking to children about camp. But right before they leave, you might say, 'You might miss us a little bit, but if you do, you can talk to your counselor about it and it will pass.' You don't want to scare them."

"If a child can make it through the third night, they are usually OK," Johnson says. "But most anxiety dissipates in the first 24 hours after they arrive."

What your child gains in social skills and independence at camp is invaluable. "Camp is a learning experience and an opportunity to have fun," says Bruce Muchnick, a psychologist in Glenside, Penn. "Children learn skills at camp that enhance self-reliance, cooperation and interdependence. They can unburden themselves there and just be kids. And for parents and children, camp is a good chance to practice letting go."

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