Is Your Child Ready for Overnight Camp?

Sleepaway camps can do wonders for a child’s personal growth and development.

For many children, sleepaway camps are a rite of passage. They leave home every summer, take part in fun activities, learn new skills and make friends before returning home with a new sense of independence.

But as a parent, how do you know whether your child is ready? And which overnight camp is the best choice? There are so many questions and choices involved that knowing where to start can feel overwhelming. But camp directors say overnight programs can do wonders for a child’s personal growth and development.

The Case for Overnight Camp

Sleepaway camps teach kids much more than physical and academic skills, says Jill Moore, executive director for Camp Thunderbird, a YMCA of Greater Charlotte program for ages 7-16.

“We help build resiliency, instill confidence and authenticity, and help children develop their best selves while doing what they enjoy,” she says. “It’s so much more than learning new activities. We help them figure out who they are, which is empowering, and we also focus on relationship building.”


Camp Thunderbird is set alongside Lake Wylie and offers a range of team and individual activities on water and land, such as waterskiing, sailing, paddle sports and wakeboarding.

“We also offer archery, riflery, fishing, climbing towers and zip lines, and arts programs … and we have a science and technology program that includes digital media, engineering and robotics,” Moore says. “We’re bringing kids together, stretching their comfort zones a little and teaching them about the real world. Most of them come home more confident, with an attitude of ‘Look what I did,’ and are really excited about the experience and looking forward to the next time.”

A Focus on Outstanding Outcomes

At Camp Weaver in Greensboro, which offers programs designed for ages 6-16, Executive Director Jamie Cosson says the goal is to achieve three basic outcomes.

“We want to nurture a sense of achievement and build self-confidence, foster relationships with our counselors, and create a sense of belonging and being a part of something for each camper,” Cosson says.

In addition to activities like swimming, horseback riding, trampoline fun, zip lining, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding, archery and a ropes course, Camp Weaver also teaches life skills, Cosson says.

“We have an organic garden that teaches kids about growing foods and a Go Pro adventures activity where they film and edit their own video. We also have a mini-farm where kids can take care of adopted animals as well. It’s really about building who they are as people.”

Is My Child Ready?

If you have to persuade your child to go to camp, he or she may not be ready. The American Camp Association (ACA) advises that children under age 7 who haven’t been away from home overnight may not adjust as well, and may benefit from attending a day camp first.

Tony Campione, senior vice president of marketing and communications of YMCA of the Triangle in Raleigh, which operates Camp Seagull and Camp Seafarer in Arapahoe and Camp Katana in Wake Forest, says homesickness isn’t usually as much of a problem as parents may anticipate.

“We do a really great job of working with homesick campers, and our goal is to get them out there doing activities as a part of camp life each day,” he says. “A four-week overnight experience may not be something that every child is ready for, and we know that, so depending upon the child’s personality, parents may want to start with a one-week experience instead, and build up to a two-week and then a four-week camp. We will work with parents to determine whether the child may be ready.”

Moore says a few cases of homesickness may creep in, but “If that’s going to take place, typically it’s in the evening, and we’re prepared to help when that happens. Of course we want them to detach from their phones and laptops and interact with one another, which can be different from what they’re used to, but honestly, they are so busy all day long and so tired every night, homesickness has always been something we’ve been able to work through successfully and doesn’t usually last very long.”

What Parents Should Know

Researching camps online is a great place to start, and the ACA website offers a wealth of information. Asking other parents about their child’s experience can also be helpful and, of course, costs and schedules must be taken into consideration.

Campione suggests involving your child in the decision-making process.

“I’ve seen it work best when parents explore camp interests with their child, and it’s a building conversation throughout the year, not a week beforehand,” he says. “We place a lot of emphasis on skills development, so we ask parents before the kids even go to sit down with them and talk about some of the goals their child wants to meet over the summer.

Then we can encourage the children to meet those goals, and it’s all done in an environment that’s entirely supportive and inclusive, to foster the child’s confidence.”

Choosing a camp accredited by the ACA is one of the most important factors, experts say. The counselor-to-campers ratio is another concern.

“We like to see at least two counselors in every cabin, and also recommend that parents talk to the leadership to understand the culture and climate of the camp,” Moore says.
Cosson recommends asking about the screening process for counselors, as well as visiting the camp whenever possible. “It definitely helps to lay eyes on the camp facilities and meet the staff if you can,” he says.

Campione recommends that parents look at the facilities to make sure they adequately meet their child’s needs. “And also look at what kind of training the staff receives, because those folks are going to be with their child every single day,” he says.

Where Memories are Made

While choosing the right camp is an important decision, Moore doesn’t want camps to be viewed as competitive.

“I have a passion and a desire for every child to go to camp, and I want all of their experiences to be incredible,” she says. “As camp directors, working together and supporting one another, we all serve kids better. And I want us all to be excellent in what we have to offer and how we make those things happen. That’s what matters the most.”

Tammy Holoman is a freelance writer from Winston-Salem.