What is the Perfect Age to Start Overnight Camp?

by ParentCo. December 12, 2017

kids smiling and looking at the sky

What is the best age to start sleep-away camp? I’m going with eight.

If you google “best age for overnight camp” or “is my child ready for sleep-away camp,” you’ll find a slew of blog posts from various parenting websites. Most of them include the caveat that every child is different, meaning that there is no perfect age to send your child off to a cabin in the woods to be cared for by a teenager. For some it’s six, for others it’s never. I have one of each in my family.

The articles often cite a camp director or child expert (Dr. Thompson, the author of "Raising Cain" and "Homesick and Happy," is a favorite) and then offer some vague points of wisdom. Very few actually provide an answer to the question: What is the right age for my child?

You ran the search because you wanted a definitive answer. With a starting point and frame of reference, you can then figure out where you fit on the spectrum. That’s why I’m staking a claim on age eight.

Unfortunately, I can’t offer advice based on personal experience, as we kind of (ironically) missed the boat on overnight camps, but I have scoured the internet and spoken to a number of top-notch camp directors. Following are the most useful tidbits I found in my research.

Why you should send young children to camp

Six-year-olds? Really? They just learned how to tie their shoes!

Apparently, this is not a crazy concept. There are many residential camps that offer sessions for younger kids. Currently 45 percent of the traditional camps in the Summer Camp Guru database offer sessions for six-year-olds or rising first graders. Another 42 percent start at age seven, or rising second grade.

Almost 90 percent offer the opportunity to send your seven-year-old to camp. (Note that kids under eight usually attend a one-week “starter camp.”)

At Rockmont Camp for Boys in Black Mountain, NC, the six-year-olds stay with their cabin-mates and counselors throughout the day, so they're not trying to find their own way to activities. Additionally, most of the youngest campers have volunteer parents on site.

Kyndra Luce, owner of Famous Adventures day camp in Charleston, worked at a variety of residential camps. She offers this advice:

Developmentally, the "magic" age for sleep-away camp is eight or nine, or third grade. This is when little brains develop a new ability to reason – the world is less black and white. Kids are able to take care of themselves and their things independently. Allowing kids to experience independence outside of the home builds confidence beyond what parents can offer. 21st century children need resilience, and camp is the perfect opportunity to foster this.

Many North Carolina summer camps have been around for 50 to 100 years. You have to assume that they know what they’re doing. If younger kids were not successful, they would change the programs. The last thing they need is negative feedback as they rely on word-of-mouth marketing.

Reasons why younger children do well at camp

  • They develop independence and confidence early.

Adam Boyd, the director at Camps Timberlake and Merri-Mac, says that six-year-olds will show huge leaps of independence. By the end of the session their confidence level is tremendous. They also love forming friendships with counselors and older campers.

Yates Pharr, the director at Falling Creek Camp, mentioned that if parents had a good camp experience themselves, they are more likely to send younger kids because they know their children will learn independence. Kyndra agrees; she found that camp alumni sent their children at the earliest age allowed because they knew what to expect and couldn’t wait for their kids to share in the experiences they remembered.

They are less homesick.

Adjusting to new situations is easier for children under 10. Older kids tend to feel homesick more intensely if they've never been away from home before.

You can secure a spot at a popular camp.

This may seem like a perverse reason, but it can be very hard to find an open spot for 10- and 11-year-olds at the best camps. Smaller camps with high return rates fill up by early fall, with some taking registrations a full year in advance. Returning campers have priority, and therefore the middle school sessions are snagged by kids who have already attended for several years.

If you want summer camp to be an integral part of childhood tradition, it’s best to start early. A good indication of readiness is whether you can answer “yes” to these questions:

  • Can your child swim?

If not, waterfront activities may be limited. All camps will have some kind of proficiency test for safety purposes.

  • Is your child interested in going?

Do they get excited listening to friends or siblings talk about their camp experiences? Do the activities at camp sound fun to them?

I will offer a personal opinion on this one. Wanting to do something because all your friends do it doesn’t mean that you actually understand what it’s all about. Archery and jumping off the Blob sound fun, but how about sleeping in a cabin without Mommy?

Conversely, your child may not understand enough about camp to be excited when you ask “Want to go to sleep-away camp for two weeks?” They don’t appreciate that camp means making friends, learning new skills, and just being yourself.

If you believe camp is important for your children, don’t let this be a show-stopper. There are tricks to get a reluctant child excited about overnight camp.

  • Can your child attend sleepovers or spend a week with grandparents without issues?

If they are still clingy in new situations or are hesitant to even spend the night at a friend’s house, they may not be ready for camp.

  • Is your child willing to participate in group activities and sing silly songs?

This is not the same as being outgoing and social. Camp can be a great motivator for shy children and offer a safe place for them to come out of their shells. However, if they insist on sitting on the sidelines, doing their own thing, and are unwilling to join the group, a traditional camp setting may not be the best idea at this point.

These considerations are not important

  • What if he can’t manage to brush his teeth or shower?

The counselors make sure their wards adhere to proper hygiene. At some camps, showers are mandated daily. If not, doesn’t swimming in the lake count as bathing?

  • What if she forgets to apply sunscreen or use bug spray?

Again, this is the counselors’ job.

  • What if he never finds the clean clothes I packed in his trunk?

People used to wear the same outfit for weeks on end, and they advanced the human race much farther than our generation ever will.

  • My child’s a picky eater.

Most camps serve kid-friendly food. Regardless, going without your favorite brand of chicken nuggets is a character-building experience.

Some popular camps fill up in early autumn, so start your research now. You can even incorporate camp items as Christmas gifts!



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