Sleepover camp: How to prepare your kids

Here's how you can set the stage for success when your kids go away for sleepover camp.

Tracy
Avery and Anna had a blast at their Girl Guides sleepover camp. Photo: Tracy Chappell

My daughters have both just returned from an incredible weekend at Girl Guide camp. This was my eight-year-old, Anna’s, third time out (following camps this past October and February) but the first foray for Avery, who is five. There have been a few rocky patches on our path to camp, but we managed to wave goodbye to the girls with smiles on all faces. Here’s how:

Make a decision: What’s the right age for overnight camp? I don’t think there’s any one answer. Anna went for the first time this past fall, when she was seven, simply because that was the first time she had the opportunity. It felt like a good age. Avery had the opportunity to go to winter camp in February, when she was five, but I admit I balked. It felt young to me, and especially to start with winter camp. Because of her personality, I knew when I sent Anna off to camp that if she had a problem, she’d speak up about it. But I wasn’t so sure with Avery—she’s less comfortable speaking to adults and I had this image in my mind that she would spend the weekend with soggy socks or get frostbite and not tell anyone. I worried winter camp would be less fun for a newbie than camp in the fall or spring, and it would turn her off. So, even though I knew it was all kinds of wrong, I said no when she wanted to go, knowing she’d have another chance at camp in June. (On the other hand, Anna was a little resistant about her first camp opportunity and I basically just told her she was going. I said if she didn’t enjoy it, she didn’t have to go again, but she needed to give it a try. Luckily, she loved it. In fact, this year she’s going to her first week-long overnight camp!)

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Don’t talk too much: I went over some of the logistics of camp with Avery—you know, how she’ll need to put her dirty clothes in the plastic bag, and remember to brush her teeth, and that if she has to pee in the night, she’ll have to wake up a leader to take her outside to the bathroom building. I thought I was giving her a good visual of camp life, so there weren’t as many surprises and she could ask questions if she was unsure about anything. But I realized that the more we discussed it, the more anxious she became. She really liked the idea of going to camp, but I was stressing her out. So I stopped talking, knowing that whatever happened, she’d figure it out. I also had the luxury of knowing Anna would be with her, and Anna put on her awesome big-sister hat, telling Avery how much fun it was going to be.

Pack together: After we got the list from the leader, I sat with each of them, reading off items while they raced around collecting them. I loved seeing what clothes they picked, and how particular they were about which face cloth or book they should take. I felt better that they were active in the packing, so I didn’t have to worry about them not knowing what they have and what they don’t.

Have faith: Just like when you send your little one off to daycare or kindergarten, you need to have faith in the people who are running the show. Girl Guide camp feels like a well-oiled machine to me, and I know how dedicated the leaders are about making sure kids feel included and comfortable. They want it to be a great experience, so I never worry about my kids being well looked after. At the same time, we have to have faith in our kids. I know it’s important to let them know we believe in them and in their ability to embrace new things and conquer their fears. While they were away all weekend, I kept thinking how Avery will return to us with a confidence in herself she never knew existed. That’s pretty thrilling.

Say goodbye: It’s very strange to just deposit your kid in the melee of camp drop-off, but I’ve learned it’s best to just give a big hug and kiss and head out. For this camp, Avery’s group was sleeping on mattresses in a cabin, while Anna’s group was sleeping in tents outside. We were able to set Avery up inside, and all the kids were playing outside when we said goodbye. But as we got into the van, Avery raced up to us in tears. I was surprised, as she seemed OK up to that point. “I want to sleep with Anna!” she bawled. Apparently, Avery had just learned that several other of the little sisters were sleeping out in the tents. The leaders were totally fine with that, so Avery moved outside. Honestly, I felt a little better driving away imagining them cuddled up together.

Enjoy: It was sort of mind-blowing to realize we were coming home to a weekend with no kids! I had asked the girls what we should do. “Go to the movies!” Avery suggested (she knows us well). “Go out for a romantic dinner,” Anna said. “Like to Tim Hortons!” Avery added. We actually went to two movies (Chef, which was wonderful; The Edge of Tomorrow, which was actually pretty good in a completely different way), and went out for dinner, did some shopping and some house cleaning, and it was so nice to have a little time with just the two of us.

At times, we’d wonder what they might be doing at that moment in time; whether Avery moved back into the cabin for night #2 (nope—she loved sleeping in the tent); if Anna got a sunburn (no, but lots of mosquito bites); how late they stayed up (late). But we both were sure of one thing: they were having a blast.

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When we picked them up, they were filthy, eating s’mores, and full of smiles and stories. “She’s such a little mom,” Anna’s leader said of Anna. And we discovered that Avery has some wicked archery skills. Who knew? Not us. Not her. But that’s the best thing about camp—how much kids learn they’re capable of when given the opportunity.

Do your kids go to overnight camp? What do you do to make the experience positive?

Follow along as Today’s Parent senior editor Tracy Chappell shares her refreshingly positive take on parenting her two young daughters. She’s been blogging her relatable experiences for our publication since 2005. Read more of her Tracy’s mama memoir posts and tweet her@T_Chappell.

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