Here’s a parenting truth—you can’t wait until summer to start thinking about summer camp. Registration for some institutions starts in November or December, with the offer of early-bird savings. But before you can choose the right spot for your kids, you need to choose between a day camp and a sleepover camp. Factors like the focus and cost of the camp, how the camp hours jive with your schedule and, most importantly, your child’s age and personality, all contribute to this decision.
Over the years, day camps have become increasingly specialized, allowing kids to explore a sport or activity for a week or two. Amber Black put her daughter, Abigail, in a half-day dance camp in Whitby, Ont., when she was only three and a half. “You find out if your kid likes an activity before signing them up for the year.” For Black, a photographer who is busy during summer months, day camp gives her time to work, while Abigail, now eight, makes friends and tries her hand at different things—she has done camps for gymnastics, French and art.
From broad topics, like a particular sport or language, to more niche interests like filmmaking or circus arts, there are lots of day-camp possibilities, depending on where you live. Some cool attractions even offer behind-the-scenes camps, such as the Vancouver Aquarium and the Biodome in Montreal. The average cost of day camps is about $200 to $400 per week, and most of them also build in time for crafts and physical activity in addition to the camp’s focus.
In Calgary, Dan Furst put his sons, Nathan, 7, and Jakob, 5, in a YMCA day camp. “I sent them to camp to have fun,” he says. “They socialized and learned how to be in a group and on a team.” Like some day camps, this one offers extended care (for an extra fee) beyond the 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. schedule of many day camps. But even with an early drop off at 7:30 a.m. and a late pickup at 5:30 p.m., Furst had to fit his job as a lawyer into the day camp’s schedule, so be clear on the hours of care before you sign up.
On the other hand, sleepover camp lets kids mature away from their parents. For younger children, sleepover camp may be their first time to work together to clear the table in the dining hall, respect other kids trying to sleep in their cabin, and take sole responsibility for cleaning their part of the cabin. According to Catharine Heddle of Toronto, her sons, Simon, 9, and Colin, 11, both enjoy day camps, but when the brothers come home from their sleepover camp, Kilcoo Camp near Minden, Ont., they burble with happiness and confidence, anxious to share stories and campfire songs. “We’ve had really good experiences with both day camps and sleepover, but at sleepover camp I think that spending time with other adults and mature youths can teach kids thing that their parents can’t,” says Heddle. “I’m a big believer that it takes a village to raise a child.”
For Natasha Lowenthal, one of the benefits of sending her oldest daughter Sadie, now 13, to sleepover camp turned out to be giving her a break from always being a responsible big sister to her younger siblings. “It was a huge relief to her to feel like she didn’t have to be the most mature person in the room.” As a child not keen on sleepovers, Sadie was 11 when she first went to Camp Stephens, near Kenora, Ont., a few hours from their Winnipeg home. “We talked about some strategies, if she felt homesick. And I tucked a note into her book, so she would have a little note from me.”
Sleepover camps can include an idyllic wilderness setting, overnight canoe trips and leadership development courses as children grow into teens. Sending kids away to camp also gives parents “me” time, home alone. Cost is a downside, though, starting at about $500 to $1000 per week (check if your camp offers subsidies). “It’s more expensive, and it’s not just the camp fees,” says Anne Valeri of Toronto, whose 10-year-old daughter, Grace, is happily planning a return to Camp Oconto, near Kingston, Ont., this summer. “On top of that, you’re paying for anything they buy in the tuck shop or incremental costs to do some activities, like horseback riding.”
But are your kids are ready for sleep-away camp? Camp counsellors occasionally see seven-year-olds, but more often kids are nine or 10 when they go away to camp for the first time. “It’s a line that moves depending on the child,” says Adam Strasberg, summer camp director for Camp Kawartha near Peterborough, Ont. “Have a good discussion with your child, and ask if they think they’re ready.”
Overnight campers should be comfortable staying overnight at a friend’s house and able to dress themselves in the morning. With more than one child, parents often send a younger sibling to camp at an earlier age. Sending a kid with a classmate can help, too. Although parents of sociable, outgoing kids may feel confident their child will make friends, experienced counsellors say kids can show a different personality at camp: A shy child may blossom, while even a social butterfly can feel homesick.
While most sleepover camps curtail phone calls home, encouraging kids to grow independent, parents can still hear the news via old-fashioned letters. Like the very succinct letter Catharine Heddle’s younger son wrote home on the first day, to reassure her all was well: “Hi Mom, everything is awesome.” The end.
Read more: Kids’ day camp considerations>