School’s Back, So How Is It Time To Plan For Next Summer?

Growing up on the East Coast, summer camp was a pretty simple process:

  1. Choose a camp.
  2. Go to that camp … all summer!

Until I was nine that was a JCC day camp and after that it was overnight camp. I was dropped off at a bus, knowing no one, and watched my parents fade into the distance – mom with her sunglasses on so as not to see her cry – going off to camp for 8 weeks, seeing my parents once, after four weeks at visiting day. Yes, I was homesick. No, I didn’t always like it. And no, this wasn’t optional!

At the time, I could not see the benefit in torturing your child in this way – especially when that child was me! But in time (a lot of time) I came to appreciate what overnight camp did for me: Develop independence, overcome fears, make friends, and write a letter … all without my parent’s help! (Incidentally, a letter is this thing you write on paper, put a stamp on it – which is NOT a sticker, by the way – and send in the mail!) And frankly, if I had stayed home I would have been hard pressed to find a friend to play with … because they were all at camp!

Fast forward 28 years and now it’s my turn. My oldest daughter just started 2nd grade, and by October (yes, next month!) my husband and I will have to make the big camp decision. Good thing I’ve been thinking about this since before she was born, because here we go!

When I moved to the Twin Cities 15 years ago to work as a Jewish youth group director, I was quickly introduced to local camp culture . The rumblings of summer plans by the teens that I worked with could be heard 10 months out of the year. Talk of Israel trips, various youth group programs, and camps permeated the air. And when it came to overnight camps, it struck me that the vast majority seemed to favor just one or two of them.  And this wasn’t just the case with the kids I worked with, but with my own contemporaries as well; wherever they went as a camper was, by and large, where they planned to send their kids.

This was curious to me, I now realize, because I came to it with my own preconceived notions of what camp should be:

  • There are actually hundreds of options out there to choose from
  • What was right for a parent isn’t necessarily best for their child
  • “Camp friends” and “home friends” should be separate from each other
  • Camp should not be in spurts of 1, 2, 3, 4 (etc.) weeks!

As the years went by I became more acclimated to this way of life, and eventually married someone who himself was deeply ingrained in it. By the time it came to actually make a decision for our own child, I had a little more perspective on the matter.

So this summer, we attended two family camps – yes, the very two camps which I was almost determined not to send my kids, just to prove to myself that my notions of what camp should be (or not) were correct!  But it would be a total contradiction to make the “your-kids-aren’t-you” argument to reason my way out of embracing the local camp culture, by using my own experience as the rational.

Family camp was always something we’d planned on doing when our kids were old enough. I’d assumed this experience was simply a fun weekend away with the kids, but I actually got far more out of it than expected. For one, the parents have as much (if not more) fun than the kids! I made some really good friends from Chicago, got closer with my friends from home, walked around not caring how I looked or what I wore, and even learned to play Mahjong!

Aside from being a fun weekend, family camp gave us the opportunity to see the camps up close and personal right alongside our soon-to-be-camper. There’s no better way to get to know a camp than to actually experience their programming, interact with their staff (both administrative and counselors), take advantage of their facilities, and understand their point-of-view first-hand.

Two years ago my husband and I made the decision to send our oldest daughter to Chinese immersion school. This was a difficult choice because it was totally uncharted territory for us. It was far outside our comfort level and there’s was no way to know if this would also be the right choice for our other children; ideally, we wanted to keep them together.

Now this camp decision is starting to feel eerily familiar, except this one won’t be up to me (or my husband) to make. EEK! I’m not one to give up control so easily, but ultimately this decision will be my kids’. I feel OK about this though because after giving it over a decade of thought I’ve had some clarity in just past few weeks.

The biggest game changer for me was realizing that going to camp with your “home friends” isn’t such a bad thing. The dirty truth is that they don’t see their non-school friends (i.e. their Jewish friends) on a regular basis, so if going to camp with them will help to maintain those friendships, and could possibly even make going to other Jewish activities (like Hebrew school and synagogue) more enjoyable, then why would I stand in the way?

And thanks to some good friends and my extended Facebook family – the Minnesota Mammelahs – here’s some other sage advice on choosing a camp for your kiddo:

  1. Decide what’s important to you/your family. Camps differ on the levels of kashrut/Jewish observance (or maybe a Jewish camp isn’t your priority at all), amount of formal vs. informal educational programming, sports and other activities, percentage of local campers vs. out of town/country, and much more!
  2. Use a camp specialist. These are people whose job is to find the right camp for your child! They’re paid by the camps so it doesn’t cost you anything to enlist their help and their diverse knowledge will help ensure that you don’t miss out on something just because you don’t know about it. However, specialists don’t necessarily work with every camp, but won’t push a specific camp that they do work with.
  3. Check the camps out. This can be done by attending family camp, visiting during the summer, talking to campers and staff, watching videos/other promotional material provided by either the camp itself or a camp specialist.
  4. It’s OK if your kids choose a different camp than you or their siblings. Camps are not one-size-fits-all; listen to your children’s wants and needs and be open to their input.
  5. Let your camper try out a few camps. Many camps have “taste of” programs that are about a week or less (and usually very reasonable in price!). So let them try it for themselves and see where they feel the most at home.

Well folks, like it or not, overnight camp [sign-up] season is already upon us! Many camps fill up quickly and registration usually opens in the fall so now’s the time to be thinking about these things. The good news is that no matter what choice you make, you can’t go wrong, because in the end, I believe that overnight camp is an invaluable experience for any child. Regardless of the emphasis, specialty, or any other factor, overnight camp teaches independence and grit, and in all likelihood, your kid will have an amazing summer!