Hollow Silk Balls

Some species of balloon flies attract potential mates by presenting them with a little silk ball. Forget that a healthy camp experience has nothing to do with mating … and hopefully little to do with flies and other insects. My point is that receiving a package is fun on all branches of the phylogenetic tree. Never mind that the male balloon fly’s little silk ball is empty. It’s enough to grab the, um, attention of female balloon flies.

And that’s just my point, with regard to camp care packages. Care packages grab children’s attention; what’s inside matters less. The package itself says, “I’ve been thinking about you and I love you.”  Of course, they’re not part of a courtship ritual, but every camp director knows that care packages are part of a summertime ritual in which millions of families participate. Just how you coach those families is incredibly important.

Keep in mind that I said: “matters less,” not “doesn’t matter.” All camps have rules against contraband. Most camps don’t allow food care packages because they attract ants and critters, some of which are large, like sweets, and rhyme with share. Cookies, cakes, and candies also spoil children’s appetites for healthy camp food, so Tip #1: Coach parents to save the junk for the first day back home.

Most camps also don’t allow dangerous items or electronics. (Yes, parents have tried to ship fillet knives for tackle boxes, fireworks for the Fouth of July, and even cell phones for late-night check-ins.)  Camps are ethical environments where following community rules is highly valued. Tip #2: Coach parents to set a good example by following your care package guidelines. (Nothing says, I don’t care more than rule-breaking parents.)

What’s fun to include in a safe, legal, and healthy care package? Keep in mind that camp is about connection. Boys and girls will be making lifelong friends, so Tip #3 is to coach parents to send gear that facilitates connection. Solitary electronic games are about the worst thing to send, but non-electronic games that help young people play together include:

  • Frisbees and other flying disks
  • Around-the-Table games (terrific conversation starters)
  • Checkers, chess, Go, Mastermind, and other portable board games
  • Balls of all varieties (even though camp has plenty)
  • Mad-Libs and other group word games
  • Wildlife identification books  (great for nature walks)
  • Paper airplane and origami how-to books
  • Uno and other card games (as long as there is no betting involved)

It’s also great to send age-appropriate sports and hobby magazines, literary and science publications, and newspaper clippings.

Interesting printed media get shared and traded at camp, but Tip #4 is to coach parents away from sending magazines and comics with sketchy, sexualized, or violent content.

You also might also suggest that parents include an item or two that your child doesn’t have to share, such as:

  • a novel
  • a T-shirt
  • a puzzle (of the jigsaw or Rubic’s variety)
  • a baseball cap
  • photos of the family
  • a small stuffed animal
  • colored pencils and paper for drawing
  • a blank scrapbook or journal to start at camp

Finally, Tip #5 is to reassure parents that providing the camp experience for their child already shows how much they care. They care about their growth and development. They care about their happiness. And they care about their out-of-classroom learning.

Seen in this light, care packages are completely unnecessary. In fact, most overnight campers don’t receive care packages. Reassure parents that it’s normal not to send one. Hence Tip #6: Parents can always tell their son or daughter how much they love them in a newsy, upbeat, handwritten letter. A couple letters a week is plenty enough to sustain a meaningful connection with home. And if parents can’t resist the temptation to send something more, coach them to keep it modest. They might even try sending a hollow silk ball. On second thought …

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training.