This summer, Jacqueline Berlin, 7, will leave her mom, dad and younger sister to enter the world of overnight camp for the first time.
"As soon as she found out that she would be old enough to go [to Camp Ramah in Ojai] this summer, she wanted to go," said Jacqueline's mother, Robin Berlin of Beverly Hills, who attended the Jewish residential camp for 10 summers as a child and teenager.
But is Jacqueline, who will be 8 by summertime, really ready to be away from home for a whole week?
"I don't know," Berlin said with a sigh, "but I think it's good that it's coming from her."
According to the American Camping Association, more than 10 million children and adults attend an estimated 12,000 camps each year. Of those facilities, approximately 7,000 are residential camps and 5,000 are day camps. While experts agree that camp can increase self-esteem and foster independence and lifelong friendships, finding the right time when a child is ready to transition from day camp to overnight camp is challenging.
"The two major issues for kids are being comfortable with sleepovers and having the desire to go [to camp]," said Wendy Mogel, a local clinical psychologist, parent educator and school consultant.
Still, the therapist says that the older a child is, the more likely he or she is to adjust to living away at camp. Having an older sibling at camp or going with a friend can also make the transition easier.
After spending several summers at day camp in Malibu, as well as frequently sleeping over at friends' houses, Andie Natis of Mission Viejo knew her daughter Blaine, 14, was ready to attend overnight camp.
"She'd been ready for years, but I just didn't have the money," said Natis, whose daughter attended Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu for the first time last summer.
"I was kind of nervous because I didn't know anyone else going, but I met people on the first day," said Blaine, who will return to the camp for a second summer this year. "In the end, I made lots of best friends and had the time of my life."
Blaine was so enthusiastic about the camp that her younger sister, Brooke, 12, decided to go with her this summer.
Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute -- Camp & Conference Center said that most campers tend to make the switch to overnight camp in fifth or sixth grade.
To ease the transition, Camp JCA Shalom offers minicamp programs, which usually appeal to first- through fourth-graders. In these short sessions, campers stay for five days. The hope is that the exposure will prepare them for a longer camp session down the road. JCA Shalom also offers weekend camp programs during the fall and spring.
"We find that it's a great way for kids to transition without committing for a one-week or two-week session," said Kaplan, who added that most weekend campers sign up for longer sessions or they realize that they are not ready for overnight camp just yet.
Zach Lasker, assistant director of Camp Ramah, believes that the experience of settling in depends on the child.
"There are kids who are loving it from the time they get here, kids who take a few days to transition and kids who struggle throughout the session," Lasker said. "As an educator, I see more growth from the kids who struggle and end up making it and finding out what they're capable of."
Berlin is anticipating that her daughter will struggle with a bit of homesickness during her time at camp.
"I would be very surprised if she wasn't homesick at all," Berlin said. "I think it's just getting to the other side of missing the comforts of home, being able to comfort herself and knowing it's OK."
Lasker noted that the summer separation can be just as hard on parents as it is on campers.
"One mom said to me, 'My daughter wants to go to camp for four weeks and she thinks she's ready, but I don't know if I am,'" Lasker recalled. "We talked about what the camp involves and handling the separation from her daughter."
Still, not every child is suited for residential camp.
"There are few kids where camp is a bit overwhelming for them and it gets to the point where it's not the right match and we might have a camper who goes home early," Lasker said.
Kaplan advised parents not to give their children the option of coming home.
"For a child to transition, he or she needs time," said the administrator. "Camp JCA Shalom starts on a Tuesday. If the child doesn't [feel better] by Shabbat, we'll contact the parents."
In the meantime, Kaplan advises concerned parents to send their children care-packages and letters reassuring them that they will have a great time.
While Berlin is nervous about Jacqueline's first summer away from home, she is still confident that it will be a positive experience.
"I think she's ready for a change," Berlin said. "I think she will feel a certain sense of accomplishment if she goes and has a good time." Â
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