Sleepover camp

Sending your child to sleepover camp? Here's how to find the perfect fit

Camping has always terrified me. As a kid, the idea of sleeping in a tent made me hyperventilate. This inner psychodrama likely stems from when I was eight and my older sister, our neighbourhood’s very own Goliath, called home three days into her stay at Camp Hack-Me-Up. She howled in such anguish that my parents immediately hopped into the car to retrieve her. At midnight. On a Tuesday. I was left with the impression that you had to be Rambo to survive sleepover camp.

When it came to sending my own kids to camp, I naturally had a lot of doubt. My husband, on the other hand, kept singing, Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver and getting all misty-eyed. He’d spent a chunk of his childhood at Camp Ponacka, an all-boys camp just south of Ontario’s Algonquin Park. He apparently recalled the experience with fondness — and he ain’t Rambo, lemme tell ya.

So I went along quietly to check out Camp Ponacka. While I shuddered inwardly, our sons, Andrew and Michael, then six and eight, watched laughing boys playing tether ball, riding horses, diving off a rock into a pristine lake and peeing in a funnel under open skies. “Can we pleeease come here next year?” they begged.

They went. They have returned every year since. And it’s clear to their camp-phobic mom that the adventure has been one of the best of their lives.

According to a recent Ipsos Reid survey, 90 percent of parents who attended residential camp choose to send their kids to one too. Like my husband, they do so because they had life-changing experiences themselves. A residential wilderness camp is a great way to develop kids’ appreciation for nature. And according to research by the Ontario Camping Association, campers are more likely to try new activities and step out of their ordinary routines.

Our family had a history with Camp Ponacka, and its offerings matched the needs and desires of our kids. But a rustic camp like Ponacka does not suit every child — I know I would have been back in the car as soon as they’d shown me the outhouses. So how do you choose a camp that is right for your kids?

 The first step is simply to listen to your child and find out what she wants from a camp. While many traditional ones focus on wilderness activities such as hiking and canoeing, other camps are devoted to hockey, tennis, drama, dance, skateboarding and everything in between. For kids with a more intellectual or artistic bent, look for a camp geared to art, science, computers, music or one of their other interests.

It’s also important to take a hard look at your child’s abilities and potential for independence. Typically, sleepaway camps begin offering programs for children around age eight, but kids don’t mature at the same rate. Start by looking at how much experience he has had away from home. Does he ever sleep over at friends’ houses or at a grandparent’s? Does he enjoy these times or does he become agitated or tearful? Anne Morawetz, director of Camp Ponacka, says your child’s enthusiasm is a good way to gauge his readiness for camp. An eager child is probably one who is ready to try it. A visit to the camp, a meeting with the director or signing up with a friend might go a long way to making him feel more at ease.

Catherine Ross, communications officer for the Canadian Camping Association, also encourages parents to consider their own values when choosing a camp. If learning top-notch outdoor skills is key, go for one that offers formal instruction in canoeing, swimming and the like. Do you want to instill leadership skills? Choose a camp that emphasizes responsibility and provides opportunity for kids to mentor younger campers. Is spirituality close to your heart? You may want to choose a camp that reflects your religious affiliation.
The next major decision is whether to opt for a coed or single-sex camp. While both offer a wide range of educational and social opportunities, they have decidedly different dynamics, says Aruna Ogale, executive director of the Ontario Camping Association. “There seems to be more camaraderie at single-sex camps. Some kids seem to feel like they can just let themselves go, and be more goofy.” Ross suggests that single-sex camps may provide more opportunities for girls to lead. Coed camps might be preferable if you have children of both sexes. They’ll have a sibling close at hand, and you certainly don’t want to drive across the province to two different camps on visitors’ day.

 For most families, cost is a large consideration. Expect to pay between $600 and $1,000 per week, though camps that are subsidized by a church or community group may be considerably less. If you find the price tag for your favourite camp too steep, get in touch with your provincial camping association early in the year, suggests Ogale. “Many camps and organizations offer subsidies to offset the cost of residential camps, but they tend to go quickly. Your local camping association may be able to help you obtain these subsidies, but not in June, when the funds have already been snapped up.”

Families on a budget can consider enrolling kids for shorter sessions of one or two weeks. Research suggests that longer stays offer a better experience, but many parents balk at the idea of sending their child off for what seems like an eternity. Morawetz says she points out to anxious parents that social and life skills — the reasons most people send their children to camp — can best be developed in a longer session (Ponacka offers four-week programs for kids aged 10 and older and two-week sessions for eight- and nine-year-olds). “Children have time to get over their homesickness, if any develops, and are then able to make friends, settle in, learn the routines and enjoy what camp has to offer,” says Morawetz.

Still nervous about sending the kids for a long stay? Plan to attend visitors’ day, usually held halfway through the session. It will be easier on both of you if you know you’ll be getting the chance to reconnect soon. Discuss how you’ll stay in touch — make sure you are comfortable with the camp’s policy on phone calls and email, and consider tucking pre-addressed, stamped envelopes into your child’s duffle bag.

Once you’ve answered the big questions, narrowing your choices is still tricky. Kathy Buckworth, a Mississauga, Ont., mother of four, relied mostly on a recommendation from friends when choosing a camp for her daughter Bridget. “Our friends’ daughter went there and adored it. So I checked out the website and I liked what I saw. That was enough for me.” You can also find detailed listings through your province’s camping association (see below). When you’ve identified a few that seem to fit your needs, look carefully at their websites to get a sense of their offerings and philosophy. In addition, make sure to get the inside scoop from families who have used the camps — reputable ones will be happy to provide references.

An advance visit to the camp with your future camper when it’s in session, if possible, is the next step. Arrange a meeting with the director too; a list of questions is available from the Canadian Camping Association (ccamping.org). Be honest about your child’s requirements. “If he doesn’t like sailing or has special needs, many camps can make accommodations,” says Ogale. “If they can’t, the director might be able to refer you to another camp.”

I now see how much my sons have loved camp and how much they’ve grown as a result of the experience. They can do a perfect J-stroke, shoot an arrow and burp with abandon. They can sleep in a tent and (knock me over with a feather) live to tell the tale. Now if only they’d just stop taunting me by singing, Land of the silver birch, home of the beaver.

Where to learn more

• Canadian Camping Association/Association des camps du Canada ccamping.org
• British Columbia Camping Association bccamping.org
• Alberta Camping Association albertacamping.com
• Saskatchewan Camping Association saskcamping.ca
• Manitoba Camping Association mbcamping.ca
• Ontario Camping Association ontariocamps.ca
• Association des camps du Québec camps.qc.ca
• New Brunswick Camping Association nbcamping.ca
• Camping Association of Nova Scotia campingns.ca
• Newfoundland and Labrador Camping Association 709-576-6198

Environmentally-friendly camps

By Christine Langlois

When choosing a camp for your child, the first question you put to the director is not likely to be “Do you compost?” But since immersing kids in nature is a big part of the camp experience, it makes sense to ask about the camp’s environmental record.

Several camps now use non-toxic cleaning products where possible, says Rob Davis, president of EcoEthic, a distributor of environment-friendly products, and an adviser to several children’s camps on how to stay green. Two chemicals that are especially important to avoid are chlorine and phosphate. Chlorine bleach, used to disinfect, does such a thorough job of killing bacteria that it also kills the good bacteria in septic systems. And phosphate, often contained in automatic dishwasher detergent to soften water, encourages algae growth in lakes.

For camps on the grid that can run electric dishwashers, updating to newer high-temperature models eliminates the need for a sanitizing rinse or chlorinated dish powder. At camps where dishes are washed by hand, health regulations require they be dunked in a chlorine solution, but careful measuring reduces how much ends up down the drain.

Camps can conserve water just by making sure staff and campers know the importance of turning taps off. (Kids rushing to archery can forget.) And simple upgrades like low-flow shower heads save water, says Davis.

Several camps are proving that composting is possible without creating a stink or attracting bears. Staff at Kilcoo Camp in Haliburton, Ont., recently built a huge three-bin bear-proof composting system at a remote location on camp property. Kitchen compost is transported by golf cart to the bins.

Another major consideration — though it probably won’t be highlighted in the promotional video — is how the camp handles human waste. A septic system that’s well maintained will handle all the camp’s needs, whereas an overburdened system may let bacteria make its way into the lake and groundwater.

Kim Smith, owner and director of Camp Tanamakoon in Algonquin Park, has been slowly moving away from septic systems, putting in the first composting toilet 22 years ago and recently adding eight more for a total of 38. But going green isn’t cheap. “I just bought $1,800 worth of bags made of cornstarch to use in composting kitchen waste,” says Smith. “That’s $1 a bag compared to about five cents for plastic. You have to be committed financially.”