Expert opinions vary on the best age for a child to try overnight camp, although, when it comes to Jewish overnight camp, the consensus seems to be it’s never too late and almost never too early.
“Deciding when to start spending a summer at camp is a family decision between camper and parent,” said Jennifer Walker, assistant director at Camp Daisy and Harry Stein. “We welcome campers to start at any age. If you think your camper may be too young to start, (remember) camp is a place to gain independence and grow. We have campers that spend their first summer at Camp Stein in second grade and we get campers that spend their first summer at camp participating in our LTP program (for rising 10th graders). It is never too late to begin your summer camp journey.”
Camp Daisy and Harry Stein, a Jewish overnight camp owned and operated by Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, is located in the Bradshaw Forest of Prescott, north of Phoenix.
The American Camp Association’s Parent’s Blog “What’s the Best Age for Camp?” has advice similar to Walker’s. “When to start sending your child to sleep-away camp is a decision that depends on you, your parenting style and your child’s temperament. If your child is 5 or under, that’s too young for overnight camp alone. Go to a family camp together, or try an American Camp Association-accredited day camp program in your area, which is a great way to get a feel for what camp is all about.”
URJ Camp Newman, a Jewish camp in Santa Rosa, CA, often hosts campers from Arizona. Camp Director Rabbi Allie Fischman also agrees that the answer to the right age to start overnight camp varies widely.
“Every child is different, and what we do is meet every child where they’re at,” said Fischman. “Kids are ready at different ages. The west coast kids are used to shorter times at camp. We’ve had first graders and that worked, and they were just out of kindergarten. First grade seems like a good time for starting. They’re probably dressing themselves, doing some chores at home and gaining a little independence.”
Fischman suggests for longer camp sessions, entering third grade – age 8 or 9 – seems like a good starting age.
Camp Newman offers a 4-Day Taste of Camp for children in first through fourth grade. “This is our second year (offering this) and more than 70 (kids) registered. At least half of the kids were ready to come back next year,” Fischman said. “One kid who was so tiny, turned to her parents as they were leaving and said ‘OK, sign me up for the whole summer next year.’ That was so cute.”
Walker reminds parents that camp employs many people to support their camper. From counselors, unit heads, directors, rabbis, camper care team members and more.
“Let them know that if they have questions or need anything, these are the people to go to,” she said. “Before camp, talk about all the exciting activities they will participate in and new people they will meet. Camp is a place to have fun, be silly and be yourself.”
Before arriving at camp, camp officials ask parents and campers to fill out “getting to know you” forms.
“This way, we can learn a lot more about our campers to help them have the best possible experience at camp,” said Walker. “Also, talk to your child about shared living spaces. Campers will have their own bed and cubby space but share the general area and bathrooms.”
This type of sharing may be new to some campers.
“For younger campers; help them put together their outfits, make their bed, brush their teeth and shower independently so that these skills are familiar and practiced when they arrive at camp,” suggests Walker. “Have your child pack their bag with you. That way, they’ll know where everything is and what items they are bringing to camp.”
She also suggests bringing pre-addressed and stamped envelopes to send home.
“Our counselors are always there to help, but this ensures that they have the correct addresses to get to where they need to go,” Walker said. “Don’t hesitate to reach out to the camp to ask any questions prior to the summer. Most importantly, relax and enjoy your time. Your child is well taken care of and having a great experience.”
Fischman said one way to help prepare younger children for overnight camp is to have them practice by staying overnight at a friend or family member’s house. This helps prepare them for the change in their routine.
“Camp upends home routines. If your kid freaks out trying to do that, that’s a good indication your child might not be ready for staying overnight (at camp),” she said.
Sending a child to Jewish camp – when they are ready – can be an extremely positive experience.
“I’m a camp professional and believe there is no greater gift a Jewish family can give their kid. It can be transformative,” said Fischman. “All of our camps are doing everything possible to make them feel fundamentally comfortable and set with Jewish values. A lot of times, they come back as counselors. It’s really beautiful to see.”
The cost of overnight Jewish camp can appear unaffordable to some parents, but there are scholarships and other ways to get financial assistance.
“I’ve never worked with a Jewish camp that isn’t willing to work with people,” said Fischman. “We want kids to experience the amazing things kids get from Jewish camps. For instance, there is a program called One Happy Camper that is available for all families sending their children to Jewish camp for the first time and it gives discounts of $700-$1000. It’s a wonderful resource.”
Fischman added, “The benefits of camp are endless, but especially in our tech-driven society today, the mental health benefits of camp, community and being outdoors are priceless.” JN
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a freelance writer living in Anthem.