Parents take the plunge

Advice from experts on how to let kids go to camp

You may no longer be afraid of ghost stories or of sleeping on the top bunk but you, like your child, probably still have fears about camp. Rest assured, you’re not alone. While sending your child to camp for the first or eighth time can be emotional—most often, your fears are for naught.


"A parent should evaluate how much his or her own personal anxieties are interfering with the child’s opportunity to engage in a positive camp experience," suggests parenting expert Sara Dimerman, author of Am I a Normal Parent? Her advice: Evaluate what you’re most afraid of, then seek answers to help put your mind at ease.

We asked five camp directors about the most common parental fears and how to address them.

I'm afraid that my child will not be safe at camp.

It's not uncommon to want to know who will be responsible for your child’s health and well-being. But safety is something camp directors take very seriously.

This means that the camp experience can lead to a lifelong network of friends and colleagues who may later be able to help obtaining job interviews, securing employment and developing a career path.

"We often get calls from parents who say ‘My child just adores horses and wants to come to camp and ride . . . but I’m really nervous because I don’t know anything about it’," explains Janet Fine, co-director of The Hollows, a traditional overnight camp, is the same: If you don’t know something, inform yourself so that you feel comfortable."

At The Hollows, safety means employing competent and highly trained staff.

"I say to my instructors, ‘You can see an accident coming and you can prevent it'," says Fine, who has operated her camp for 27 years without any serious accidents.

She encourages parents and children to visit the camp before enrolling.

As a new Canadian, no one in my family has ever been to camp. And I'm afraid my child will have trouble communicating with the other kids.

There are many camps that happily cater to the needs of new Canadians and children who are learning English as their second language. Activity-based camps not only break language barriers but can help boost your child's self-esteem.

"Theatre arts is a universal language," explains Lily Small, director of Great Big Theatre Company, which offers camps in 35 locations around Ontario. For the Great Big Theatre Company, hiring multicultural staff members who speak a variety of languages is just one way to help new campers feel more comfortable. "Our camp allows children to develop their movement and visual skills as well as verbal skills," says Small. "We offer a safe and non-judgmental environment, where a child can come out of his or her shell and foster a sense of self-confidence."

I'm having trouble letting go.

Some parents have a difficult time placing the responsibility for their child in the hands of someone else. But for Tim Van Dam, the director of PaddleFoot, the solution is to equip parents with as much information as possible.

"Many parents want daily updates, which just isn't possible for us," says Van Dam, whose outdoor adventure program offers canoe trips spanning one week to 46 days. Instead of promising a daily update, Van Dam is upfront, showing parents maps of the trip route and information about the qualifications and experience of the guides leading their child's trip. "This helps replace control with knowledge," he says.

Once parents feel comfortable and confident, they are more likely to pass those feelings on to their child. "The most weary parents often become our strongest promoters," says Van Dam. "Children who are granted independence during the summer return home with an improved sense of confidence and the ability to make good decisions for themselves throughout the school year."

I'm afraid I won't have any communication with my child or the camp.

In the digital age it's sometimes hard to believe that a break from instant communication via cell phones and the Internet is a good thing—but the majority of traditional camp directors agree that it is. "While we encourage concerned parents to call the camp and even welcome them to speak with their child's councilor directly, we do not put kids on the phone during camp," explains Beth Alison, Executive Director of Cairn Presbyterian camps. "It is important for a child to get into the community spirit of camp and that means unplugging from cell phones, video games, iPods and other things connected to home life."

My child has special needs and I'm concerned he won't fit in.

With a growing number of camp programs designed with special needs in mind, parents no longer need to worry. At places such as Camp Awakening—which offers girls' programming out of Camp Oconto, near Tichborne, Ontario, and boys' programming out of Kilcoo Camp, in ner Minden, Ontario—children with physical disabilities are able to integrate within a traditional camp environment while being provided with the care they need to feel safe and comfortable. "We have a real plan in place for servicing each individual child's needs so that he or she feels capable and included in all camp activities," says Paul Chamberlain, Awakening's interim executive director. "Often these kids go home at the end of the summer with a sense of ‘I did it' that they've never experienced before."

What would your children miss out on by not going to summer camp?

Freedom. Camp provides a safe environment where kids can establish their independence and get a taste of what it's like to do things on their own.
Friendship. Camp gives kids the opportunity to make new friends they wouldn't otherwise meet. These camp friendships tend to last long into adulthood.
Nature. Camp allows children to take a break from Facebook and text messaging. It encourages them to interact with nature and play outdoors.
Variety. Camp offers a holistic approach; giving your child an opportunity to develop life skills, try new things and experience physical activity and play.
Future opportunities. While at camp, kids learn how to get along with people from all walks of life and how to handle themselves in a variety of different situations. They also get an opportunity to test their leadership abilities—which helps prepare them for the future.

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