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Jewish Journal

To sleep-away camp ... perchance to dream

by Sharon Duke Estroff

February 22, 2007 | 7:00 pm

Going to overnight camp for the first time. It is -- in many circles -- a Jewish rite of passage. Unlike becoming a bar or bat mitzvah, however, the perfect timing for transitioning from day camper to overnight camper is not preordained; on the contrary, it can vary significantly from child to child.

With no magic age to rely on, how do we determine whether or not our little camper is ready to take the sleep-away plunge? By taking a deep breath, separating our own conflicted emotions from the question at hand and looking for the following overnight camp readiness markers in our child (adapted from guidelines by Chris Scheuer, director of camping for YMCA camping services of Greater New York):

  • A desire to go to overnight camp. True, some kids require gentle nudges to get them into the sleep-away state of mind. But if you notice your child turning a ghastly gray every time you broach the topic of bug juice or s'mores, chances are you should wait another round of the calendar before bringing them up again.
  • Successful experiences away from home. Generally speaking, kids who spend the night with friends without 3 a.m. pleas for pick-up -- or survive a week at Grandma's with minimal trauma -- are probably ready for an extended stay at overnight camp.
  • Adaptability to new routines. Every child takes a little while to settle into new schedules and routines, but some kids become prohibitively anxious in the absence of familiar protocol. Simply put, if you believe your child may wig out if he doesn't have his favorite Scooby-Doo mug of water and crushed ice delivered to his bedside every night, sleep-away camp may be a Scooby-Don't for now.
  • Ability to interact with other children. Your child needn't be a social debutante, but a basic knack for integrating into a group, relating to other kids and forging friendships is vital for group/bunk life.
  • A handle on hygiene basics. While overnight camp provides an excellent forum for promoting hygienic independence in kids, a child who has yet to nail down the basics (e.g. face and body washing, hair and tooth brushing, nose and tuchis-wiping) can quickly become disheveled, malodorous and embarrassed.
  • Ability to express needs. Plenty of shy kids thrive in a sleep-away setting, but profound hesitance to communicate personal needs -- especially when a child is not feeling well, needs help learning a skill, or isn't sure where an activity is taking place -- can compromise a camper's physical and emotional well-being.
  • Ability to make basic decisions. Overnight camp provides a steady stream of choices: Tennis or archery? Macramé or batik? Top bunk or bottom bunk? Consequently, campers who excessively grapple with run-of-the-mill decisions are liable to feel overwhelmed and frustrated.
  • Willingness to experience the outdoors. No matter how expensive an overnight camp might be, it is not going to be the Ritz. On the contrary, bugs, spiders, snakes, rain and mud are part of the overnight camp fabric. Most kids take well to the opportunity to connect with nature on such an intimate level. Some kids, however, do not.
  • Respect for adults. Enjoying a bit of parent-free abandon is part of the fun of overnight camp. Still, basic kavod, or respect, toward counselors, specialists and other authority figures, and a willingness to adhere to adult-initiated boundaries, are sleep-away camper prerequisites.
Finally, if after careful consideration, you determine that your child is not quite ready for prime-time overnight camp, don't despair. Embrace the coming months as an opportunity to help your child reach these readiness milestones, and reassess the situation next year.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally-syndicated Jewish parenting columnist whose work appears in more than 50 publications; an award-winning educator; and a mother of four. Her Jewish parenting book, "Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah?" will be released by Broadway Books in 2007. www.sharonestroff.com.

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