Sure, there's going to be bugs. And food that's fun to make fun of. And a couple of bouts of homesickness. But camping, the experts agree, is good for children. "It's a great equalizer," says Arthur Pinchev, director of youth and family programming at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, "It's one place where kids can really be kids," away from the pressures of school and family life.
But camps themselves are not created equal, and the challenge for parents lies in finding the camp experience that's right for their own child. Here's five steps the experts recommend:
1.Decide: Is your child ready? The usual age for sleepaway camp is about 8, when the child is preparing to enter the third grade, though some kids take far longer to accept the notion of leaving home. Pinchev feels it's simple to know when a youngster is ready: "You ask the child, or the child will tell you." Take into account your child's personality and past experiences, says Mark Miller of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple camps. A kid who makes friends easily, likes getting involved with activities, and has spent holiday weekends at Grandma's house will probably not have trouble. A loner can adjust nicely so long as he (or she) accepts boundaries and nonparental authority figures.
2.Make sure it's accredited. Every camp on your list should be accredited by the American Camping Association. This national body, to which all of Southern California's leading Jewish camps belong, sets strict standards of health and safety.
3. History and traditions: look into them. Think about what sorts of activities are important to you and your child, then make sure the camp has the same emphasis. Some camps reflect the outlook of a particular movement within Judaism. Even among day camps, there are major differences. Gan Alonim, a day camp sponsored by the Brandeis-Bardin Institute, schedules no trips to the beach or Disneyland. Instead, Gan Alonim campers spend their days entirely on the bucolic campsite in Simi Valley. Camp Ramah emphasizes Jewish study as well as Jewish fun. Several Ramah camps are proud of their nature trails and ropes courses. The day camps run through the Jewish Centers Association are experimenting with special interest sessions, such as sports clinics. JCA campers can also opt for the "town and country" program, which serves as a low-key introduction to sleepaway camping by combining day camp with a shortened stay at JCA Shalom.
4. Talk to the camp. Share with the camp staff any difficulty your child may be having, or any home circumstances (such as a pending divorce) that may create emotional stress. The current philosophy is that parents and camp directors form an important partnership on the child's behalf. But staffers know that some parents help fuel their child's adjustment problems by conveying the "fact" that homesickness is the norm.
5.Check it out ... now! Parents should be looking into camps the summer before their child will be packing his duffel bag. By late autumn 2000, Southern California's most popular camps will probably have few spaces left for the summer of 2001.