Timing Is Everything

For camps that offer multiple enrollment options, a solid understanding of camper tenure lengths is an essential tool when speaking with parents. Today, camps live in a world of time crunches, over-scheduling, helicopter parenting, and specialty programs—all of which conspire against the traditional camp concept of giving kids a legitimate foray from the nest. For some families, a five-day lacrosse clinic on a college campus has to suffice as a “camping experience.” Furthermore, some school districts stretch the academic calendar well into June, while others commence autumn classes before Labor Day.

Consequently, most camps are forced to condense their sessions into the safer zones of midsummer, giving less time than ever to achieve camping’s overarching mission of helping youngsters gain confidence and a sense of independence. During these precious few weeks, even one week “rookie camps” and father-son weekends are possible. As you read this article, you will learn that most traditional camp folks agree that simple tenure—the actual number of days spent away from home—is the key to an experience that has lasting value to a child.

Whenever camp people get together, they talk about how many parents find it frightening to allow separate experiences for their children. Parents want to know their concerns are being validated and understood by directors, and that they are great parents for being so demanding of camps. Once parents hear you out, perhaps they will come away with much less separation anxiety once and begin to see how going off to camp might be an unbelievable, healthy, growing experience for a small child.

Two-week Sessions Are For Beginners

It is completely normal for parents and children to fear that first-time separation. The younger the child, the more sense a shorter stint makes. Most camp directors sense that “Mom knows best” (sorry, Dad) when her child is ready for any tenure away from home. This being said, there is some risk in opting for these short sessions.

All kids—regardless of their temperamental stripes—take several days to completely acclimate to being away from home. Most are a tad homesick and likely to write sad letters to Mom and Dad. But, what parents don’t get the opportunity to see, but we do, is that these very same boys and girls are often the first up the hill after dinner to join the soccer scrimmage, or to bolt towards the jam session in the music room. And this is the same day they wrote a letter home or broke down upon hearing Mom’s voice over the phone! There’s a small sparkle in the eye and skip in the step. What’s happening here? The process of acceptance has begun.

However, camps fear the two- week session might result in some kids getting plucked from camp just as the prime value of the adventure is kicking in. By the fourteenth day, most youngsters will admit their camp experience is still somewhat colored by homesickness, even though they are now comfortable at camp. But campers now know the rules, routines, personalities, and the possibilities to follow. Deep down, they recognize they can overcome homesickness. Do they articulate this feeling? No, but many campers acknowledge later that the countdown to next summer begins the moment they get home. For others, though, camp ends so soon that the real and lasting value of the experience goes relatively unnoticed. We are left holding our breath that, with the passage of some time, these youngsters, too, will begin to realize that, in truth, they did flourish while away from home.

Magic Day Number 21

“The tipping point is three weeks,” argued a director one morning at an administrative gathering. “So and so seemed a bit out of his comfort zone for almost two weeks—then, out of the blue, he was making friends and loving camp.” This paraphrase seems to apply to just about every child whose tenure reaches three weeks and beyond. For most kids, becoming fully connected is the key element of happiness. Once, on about his eighth day at camp, a chronically homesick camper scored the winning goal in the final moments of an inter-camp soccer game. He was carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates, and his homesickness evaporated on the spot.

Clearly, not every youngster will have such an obvious epiphany. In most cases, though, a child eventually wakes up one morning and inwardly acknowledges that “everybody knows me here.” Furthermore, the camper knows everybody else, admires the counselors, gets all the camp jokes, and has become comfortable with the camp routine. In short, the camper no longer is being swept along, but now is charting an independent course.

We tell parents of struggling campers that it is only a matter of time before their child surrenders to the fun of camp. Every youngster has a personal tipping point, after which a wonderful experience ensues. While our study of the camp-adjustment process is by no means scientific, years of experience indicate that by the end of week three, most kids are fully entrenched members of the camp community and loving it.

Four-Week Stints Are Most Common

Savvy parents know that four-week tenures are the best short-term option for children. Knowing that by the end of the third week when most campers are on a roll, parents can trust the staff to use the fourth week, and any subsequent weeks, to win their kids completely over to the camp experience. Indeed, deep into every session, all camps promise that the upcoming week will be a great one, with full confidence that their charges will be satisfied with the outcome simply because they want it that way. There is no stress—that weight of homesickness, that need to impress or perform, that burden of wondering how to connect—all of these issues are long forgotten as those later weeks fly by quickly.

It can rain cats and dogs during week four, and no one will care. Youngsters of differing makeup, who simply endured one another earlier in the session, now have become friends. Those defeated in the touch football tournament or in color war are disappointed for a grand total of 10 minutes, after which it is time to head down to the waterfront. Legitimate character-building is now happening, and the value of camp triples over that of the shorter tenures. These are the gravy days of camp, gorgeous to behold.

Long-term Consequences

Children who stay at camp for the full summer develop a swagger—a happy, completely contented, measurable attitude that has a lasting effect on them. The gamut of clinics, games, trips, and other activities is optimal for getting the full range of the camp experience. A different and better person returns home, and the positive effects linger for quite some time—forever in many cases! Go back and review the procession of values accrued as one moves from the two-week start-up stint to the seven-week summer, and the following becomes crystal clear: As tenure increases, so does the assimilated value of the camp experience. However, each session option discussed above is, for good reasons, a “Can do.”

Bob Wipfler is the owner of Kingswood Camp in Piermont, N.H. Reach him at 603-989-5556, or visit www.kingswoodcamp.com.