What age should I begin sending my child to overnight camp? This is one of the most common questions parents ask. But, according to camp experts, there’s no one simple answer or formula. The right age depends on the child and on the particular program being considered.
“While some kids come to us as young as seven, most are nine or 10 their first summer,” says Joanne Kates, director of Camp Arowhon, a residential camp in Algonquin Park. Kates tells parents that there are three factors to consider when deciding if your child is ready for the overnight experience.
“First, is your child comfortable having sleepovers? Can your child sleep at a friend’s or relative’s house without calling you before bed to come pick them up?” she says. “I often ask parents to set up sleepovers and see how the child reacts. If your child is still nervous or uncomfortable with the prospect of spending the night away from home, overnight camp probably isn’t in the cards just yet,” says Kates.
“Second, can your child swim the length of a pool? Although policies on swimming and water safety vary by camp, your child may need to show they can swim before participating in water activities. Ask if the camp has a swim test; if they do, you’ll want to know for certain that your child can pass this test without difficulty,” Kates says.
Finally—and most importantly—allow your child to help you select the camp, and gauge their interest in overnight options. Spend some time together on different camp websites. Let your child get a feel for what each camp is all about. Then attend a camp expo or visit the camps in person.
Another option for parents who want to offer their young children a taste of overnight camp before signing them up for a full session is to choose a day camp that partners with a residential camp and offers campers a mini overnight experience.
“The kids go on the bus, sleep overnight in a cabin, eat in the dining hall and really get a feel for what camp is all about,” says Heather Heagle, executive director of the Ontario Camps Association (OCA). “This prepares the child for a full session at camp.”
Also, some camps like Arrowhead in Muskoka, Ontario and Harbourfront Centre Camps in Toronto run day and overnight camp programs consecutively, giving kids the chance to get to know the camp as a day camper first, and then register for an overnight session when they feel ready.
With the emergence of new overnight options designed for younger children and inexperienced campers, it may be possible to introduce your child to camping sooner than you think.
While the majority of overnight camps start campers around eight or nine, there are a handful of ‘kinder camp’ programs across the country that are providing preschoolers as young as three with their first overnight camp experience. These camps typically provide a condensed session—often two nights and three days—programmed to meet the needs of young campers.
At Camp Wenonah in Muskoka, more than 50 campers between the ages of five and seven head to camp at the end of August for a jam-packed 48-hour session aptly named WEEnonah. “I know five might seem young to sleep over at camp, but my son Jake was ready. He’s outgoing and eager to meet new people and try new things,” says Doug Bowlby, a father of two from Kingston, Ontario. “While my younger son might have been hesitant, I had no doubt Jake would thrive at camp.” It turns out he did just that. The five-year-old fell in love with archery and wall climbing, and was thrilled to be doing “big boy stuff” with the help of his counsellors.
Programs like WEEnonah tailor activities and staffing to meet the emotional, social, and physical needs of preschool-age children. “We keep the campers so busy all day that we’re able to prevent 98 per cent of potential problems including loneliness, feeling uncomfortable and wanting to go home,” says Will Stratton, a 28-year-old Wenonah alumni who takes vacation each summer from his job to work as the WEEnonah co-director. “Our responsibility, as staff, is not just to act as leaders and role models for these kids, but also as surrogate parents: ready to give a goodnight hug and respond to whatever they need emotionally.”