Once parents have decided on a summer camp, which isn’t always an easy task, they are faced with a new question: How long should my child attend? How many weeks is the right amount of time for camp?
As times have changed in the 150 year history of New England summer camps, kids have become more scheduled and parents have become more involved in their children’s schedules. There are more demands than ever on a child’s time, including school, sports, and travel, and of course, more demands on parents (see my article “Camp. It’s for Parents Too). As a result, most camps have included options for shorter and shorter sessions, but at what cost? The outcomes that parents are looking for in a summer camp experience, like life skills, friendships, outdoor experiences, unplugging from technology, etc. are all dependent on time. It takes time to establish deep and lasting friendships, to learn the camp’s traditions and schedules and to perfect new skills and activities. In general, all the things you love and learn at camp get better with time. Would you go to a great restaurant and have only an appetizer, then just walk out? It would be a waste, and in some ways, that’s the problem with short sessions. Just when kids have settled in and are getting used to the camp experience, it’s time to go home. Sometimes, you haven’t really had enough time to get the benefits, try all the activities, or bond with new friends. But before it seems like I’m only suggesting longer sessions, there are some benefits to shorter sessions and one very important reason to make sure you decide wisely.
First-timers are sometimes nervous about going away to camp, both kids and parents. While parents are mature enough to temper their worry with logic (though I’ve met a few parents that don’t seem to have this skill!), kids are sometimes understandably nervous. A shorter session is easier to get the mind around than a longer one and kids can “mark time”, basically understanding that two weeks is similar to a school vacation, which, any kid will tell you, always seem too short! It’s also a good “taste” of the camp experience. At Camp Waziyatah, we allow two-weekers (we have 2,4,6 and 8 week sessions) to extend their sessions to four weeks, which means we do not fill the sessions again at the end of the first two weeks. We feel this would be disruptive to the bonding of cabin groups, which we go to great lengths to foster. So at Wazi, kids can come for two weeks, and if they’re having a great time, they can extend their sessions (with parental permission of course). In general, we think two week sessions are good for the very youngest campers (under 10) in their first year, or very worried campers, and by “very” I mean much more than the normal amount of nervousness which you can usually judge. But, like all things, it’s not that simple.
The most important thing to do is gauge the emotional makeup of your child. Is he the kind of child that can handle a decision of some depth? Is she a big worrier? You may be surprised at what kids worry about. They are often very concerned that their parents simply won’t make it another two weeks without them. It may be hard to believe, but it’s true. They also understand that there is money involved, that they have siblings and pets that might miss them and a host of other worries you wouldn’t imagine children would have. For the most part, the decision isn’t that hard. In the middle of the second week, I simply announce that anyone who would like to extend their stay should let me know. There is never any pressure. Some kids know the first day that they want to extend and many have such a great time that they have no trouble asking to stay longer. But for those kids who are worriers or have trouble with decisions, it can sometimes cause them to focus on the question of “Should I stay or should I go?” and that gets them focused on the wrong thing. They should be focused on having fun, enjoying their experience, learning and growing, and living in the moment, basically experiencing the magic and wonder of camp. Sometimes, that decision causes them to feel torn. They are enjoying camp but of course they miss home (see my article on homesickness) and they wouldn’t mind seeing their parents. At this point, they can get stuck with a tough decision. If you think your child will struggle with this decision, I suggest sending them for four weeks to begin with. Once kids know that they are there for a few more weeks, they settle in and really enjoy it. I’ve seen it time and time again that kids don’t have a decision to worry about and the longer sessions create better friendships, more connection to the natural world, better self-confidence and social skills and truly get kids to love camp. At Wazi, there are more reasons to stay longer as well. The third week of camp is “Trip Week” where every camper goes off camp on increasingly amazing adventures year after year, as well as our incredible “Color War” competition, our final banquet, awards, and the general closure of finishing camp and saying your goodbyes to all your camp friends. I assure you that I’m not suggesting longer sessions for business reasons. I’m suggesting them because they help us achieve our mission of building better kids and they truly work better for children.
So to sum up, I would say that four weeks is the right amount of time for most campers, even young ones. If in doubt, stick with this. It’s a good amount of time for an indelible and wonderful camp experience. Six or eight weeks is the right amount of time for first time families who already accept and understand the benefits of full summer camping and are ready to go for it, as well as returning campers who absolutely love camp. Two weeks is good for very young campers and very worried campers. Kids are welcomed to come for two weeks and extend if they like, but suggesting to a camper to extend if they are happy with camp means they have a decision to make early on and that pressure can be difficult and shift focus away from the experience. Gauge the feelings and emotional makeup of your camper and the decision should be a lot easier. And if you’re still struggling to decide, call me and I’ll walk you through it.