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If you're sending your older child to camp for the first time, chances are she'll be surrounded by kids who've attended before. Read on for advice for nervous newbies on really making friends, not just blending in.
My parents were never the type to let me run free during the summer months off from school. I always, and I mean always, went to camp. Not sleep-away camp, mind you, but regular old day camp. One summer, however - and I can't remember who suggested it - my parents reserved four weeks for me at Camp Tel Yehudah, a conservative-Jewish sleep-away camp tucked away in the Catskills. I was 14.
This might sound fine; why shouldn't a kid go to sleep-away camp at some point in his or her young life? But what I didn't realize at the time was that many of my fellow campers had been attending the same camp for years, probably since age 7. And by the time they're 13 or 14, the bonds they form with their fellow camp-goers may seem downright impenetrable for a newbie to break through (unless that newbie happens to be the most social, unself-conscious newbie in the world - and how many tweens or teenagers do you know like that?).
I felt nervous the second I stepped on the bus to take me to the Catskills. I was never a rowdy kid; I generally preferred to sit quietly with books and/or my Discman at full blast, which is exactly what I did the entire bus ride. Meanwhile, the kids in surrounding seats caught up after a year apart.
Once I entered my assigned bunk, it became even clearer that although it was everyone's first day at camp, I was the newcomer. Sleep-away camp just didn't make sense to me: The chore charts were baffling; I dreaded bathroom cleanup duty (it's arguable that girls are even messier than boys); rejoiced on the rainy days when our activities would be canceled; but most of all, I just didn't know how to break into the "social scene." Many of the girls gossiped about their latest male conquests and compared notes. The resident innocent, I banded together with fellow newbies. But those friendships didn't last the way so many camp friendships do, likely due to their mere four-week lifespan.
My case was clear: I wasn't an outdoorsy kid. I needed an air-conditioned place to crash at the end of a long day spent in the woods. But what if your child genuinely craves a sleep-away experience yet hasn't grown up with the crop of kids who have been attending the same camp practically since birth? What if you haven't felt financially able to send your child to sleep-away camp until now? How can newbie campers best break in to those social cliques?
Sleepaway Camps Today
Lucky for today's campers, sleep-away camps have come a long way in terms of pre-camp introductions. Ruth Ann Ornstein, executive director of Madison, CT's Camp Laurelwood, has a number of suggestions for parents and older children in this position.
Ornstein recommends that parents seek out camps adept at making sure new campers are adequately prepared for the summer ahead. Many camps, including Camp Laurelwood, will put new campers in touch with fellow newbies their age, even in their hometown, before the summer starts. Some camp directors will also arrange for counselors to speak with new campers and their parents on the phone, as well as provide a new camper orientation a few weeks before camp starts. "We do one other thing," continues Ornstein. "Each child has an opportunity to write a letter to the counselor telling them about themselves. The counselor gets a picture of the child and will learn some things about them."
Ornstein also stresses the importance of letting your child become familiar with her surroundings prior to getting shipped off, much the way colleges today prepare incoming freshman. "(At Camp Laurelwood), we meet your child before they come, and try to hook kids up with other kids with similar interests and backgrounds before they get there. We give personal tours, and we invite someone of the same age to meet them when they arrive (for the summer). A lot of camps will do that now so the kids will feel like they're connecting with somebody."
Of course, preparation is only part of the process. What if your child ends up feeling isolated while camp is in session? When asked what kinds of things kids can do to integrate themselves into their bunks, Ornstein suggests looking for camps that will be sure to place your newbie in the same bunk as other new kids, as opposed to say, dropping them off in a bunk full of kids who have known each other since age 7.
If it's a matter of making friends, Ornstein recommends the following: "We tell parents to pack kids with tools - Mad Libs, decks of cards - something that kids can ask other kids, 'Hey, want to join me?'" And when sending care packages, "send them things they can share with other kids, like neon glow necklaces, for example."
...Another option for older kids is to place them in a specialty camp (sports, theater, dance, etc.), one where they are sure to share similar interests as their fellow campers. Jordan Snider, the director of Future Stars Day/Night Camps, is particularly supportive of sending camp newbies to a specialized program, simply because shared interests help kids to bond quickly and easily.
"My advice would be to find a program that offers activities that children enjoy, whether it's a sport or a craft or a skill, so that the child can go there for that purpose," suggests Snider. "If it's a sport, the cliques will naturally separate during those activities. They won't feel the pressure of making friends initially.
It's kind of like going to college: You're choosing it for the majors or the programs. The friendship part follows."
Specialty camps are especially well-suited for new campers, as many of them welcome new faces as often as every week. With a constantly revolving roster of participants, kids are constantly meeting new people and making new friendships. "We have some new children coming each week, so every Monday we create a way for new kids to be integrated right away," says Snider.
Of course, there is no guarantee that sending kids off to sleep-away camp later in life will be a flawless experience. Ornstein encourages parents to find a camp that will keep them in the loop as the summer progresses. And what if sleep-away camp just doesn't end up being the right fit for your child? "I would tell a parent to be wary of the camp that won't go out of their way to make their kid feel good. You have to make sure that that camp is willing to work with your child," Ornstein says. "And always find out what the refund policy is."
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