My overnight camp experience has definitely shaped me into who I am today. When I look back at 7-year-old me, who went off to camp with military-style duffle bags and a hard trunk labeled beautifully with my name and a colorful rainbow drawn impeccably with paint pens, I had feelings of both excitement and trepidation.
My parents, on the other hand, did not. They knew that their precocious and outgoing little girl was ready to embark on this great adventure while gaining confidence and becoming more independent. They didn’t have anyone advising them, they didn’t tour the camp facilities, and there were no beautifully filmed videos to watch. They simply went with their gut.
As is the case with everything in 2024, finding the perfect camp for your child has become far more complicated. Parents find themselves researching camps the same way they research colleges: they use referral agencies, peruse websites and watch videos, tour multiple camp facilities, and spend endless hours reading every last detail in articles and on websites. They speak to camp professionals both on Zoom and in person at camp fairs or during home visits. The list is endless.
So, as both a mother and a camp director, I would like to dispel some myths and offer some guidance to help ease the angst associated with sending your child or children to overnight camp for the first time.
When is the right time to send my child to overnight camp?
It is certainly counterintuitive, but the younger campers typically adjust better to overnight camp. Everything is exciting, they are eager to try new things, and they are easily distracted. What better place for your child to learn how to fold their own laundry and take care of their own hygiene (with gentle reminders of course)? Camp is paramount in fostering children to embrace various life skills, and younger children are more impressionable and moldable, which leads to greater success.
My personal opinion always was that entering third-graders are the ideal age, and I stood by that opinion with my own children until they told me otherwise. In 2018, when I returned to camp as the director of Nah-Jee-Wah and my twins were 7, I insisted that they live with me at camp. After one month they proclaimed, “Mommy, this is ridiculous. We are going into the bunk for second session.” And so they did, with great enthusiasm and huge success.
Typically, your children are great advocates for themselves, and they can tell you when it is the right time for them to start overnight camp.
Why should I send my child away, when I enjoy spending time with them?
Attending overnight camp is the most priceless gift you can give a child. It will become paramount to shaping them into amazing human beings. At camp, children learn how to live in a communal environment, take care of their own belongings, be kind and compassionate to others when they are hurting, provide empathy in difficult situations, take risks, and on and on. They will gain independence and confidence and will learn how to navigate challenging situations on their own. These life skills are not easily taught but come naturally in an overnight camp setting.
Should I send my child to camp with a friend from home?
This is not so cut and dry. I have witnessed many situations where campers who have come to camp with friends from home have been hugely successful, but I also have seen the opposite. Sometimes friends from home feel hindered by protecting their home friends, and jealousy can become evident and hinder both children’s camp experience. Many children come to camp not knowing anyone, and we, as camp professionals, do a really great job of acclimating everyone into the new and unfamiliar territory, lending itself to an environment where lifelong friends are established.
As a camp director for a Jewish agency, I would be remiss to not mention this piece as being hugely important. I would like to start by dispelling a myth that all camps are Jewish camps. While many overnight camps offer a Shabbat service and are filled with a mostly Jewish clientele, that does not mean your child will get a Jewish overnight camp experience. Judaism is infused informally in many different ways at NJY. We make mezuzahs and teach about welcoming people into our home in arts and crafts, we make traditional Israeli foods in outdoor cooking, we create challah boards in woodshop, we light candles every Friday night, and of course we have services on Friday and Saturday where we come together as a community to embrace our Jewish culture. The goal is to have each child embrace their Jewish identity rather than resent it (which is what often happens at Hebrew school). Joyful Judaism is evident in all aspects of camp, typically informally, and our campers leave with a sense of pride and understanding of their Jewish heritage and culture.
Being a camp director is both an honor and a privilege, and it is not something that I ever take for granted, so thank you for entrusting us with your children. We promise to do everything we can to make your child’s overnight camp experience the most memorable and unforgettable experience of a lifetime. Trust your gut (that has not changed in 40 years) and embrace the gift that will never stop giving.
Carrie Youngs, who has been the director of Camp Nah-Jee-Wah since 2018, has worked for NJY Camps since 1998 and also is a proud alumna of Nah-Jee-Wah and TAC. She lives in Montclair with her husband and three children, all of whom are NJY campers.