At Camp Gilboa near Big Bear, younger campers can experience sessions as short as four nights. Photo courtesy of Camp Gilboa

Camp: Welcoming the youngest charges — and their nervous parents


Wondering if your child is ready for overnight camp?

A sure sign, according to Karen Alford, a sleepaway camp consultant, is that he or she has grown tired of day camp.

“At 9, you’ve probably been doing day camp for several years, and there’s just a natural progression to sleepaway camp,” she said.

Of course, Alford added, some kids aren’t ready until they’re older.

“You have to know your child and what they can handle,” she said, adding that “some parents with kids who have trouble separating find camp even more helpful at a younger age because it builds independence.”

Luckily, most Jewish summer camps pay close attention to easing their youngest kids into the sleepaway experience. From pre-camp meet-and-greets to special presents for first-time campers to the common availability of ultra-short sessions — from five to 11 days — camps are acutely aware of the need to gently transition their littlest and newest campers into the culture of overnight camp.

In addition to providing additional resources for the young newbies — and, of course, their anxious parents — many camps also hire additional staff and train them in some hand-holding.

Take Camp Judaea, a pluralist Jewish camp in North Carolina. It offers a Taste of Camp Judaea, an 11-day program for kids as young as 7. Unlike older campers who can “specialize” in certain activities, the youngest campers, called Rishonim, get to sample all of the camp activities, including zip-lining and horseback riding. The Taste program is available for kids until the fourth grade.

“To be honest, in some ways, it’s more for the parents than the campers,” said David Berlin, assistant director of Camp Judaea. “The parents tend to be more nervous. This is our way of hooking them into camp.”

The ratio of campers to counselors is lower for the Camp Judaea’s Rishonim campers, hovering around 3 to 1, as opposed to about 4 1/2 to 1 for the older kids.

To prepare the first-timers, Camp Judaea holds parlor meetings for new families, most of whom come from the southeastern U.S., Berlin said. New campers get to watch a video, hear about a typical day at camp and have their questions answered.

“It allows the families an opportunity to meet the staff before the summer begins,” Berlin said.

They also used to send first-timers a book about sleepaway camp — “Sami’s Sleepaway Summer,” by Jenny Meyerhoff — but it’s out of print. Berlin said the book was a great way to get young campers excited and have them learn what to expect; he’s looking for a replacement.

At Camp Gilboa, located near Big Bear and part of the progressive Zionist Habonim Dror movement, younger campers can experience sessions as short as four nights.

“We focus on easing them into camp,” said Executive Director Dalit Shlapobersky.

But because Habonim Dror offers year-round programming, kids can get involved before  starting camp, and therefore become acquainted with other Gilboa campers and counselors well ahead of time, she said. The camp also invites families to visit during the year for weekends and retreats.

Shlapobersky said campers typically start Gilboa at age 8.

“At that point they’ve already gone through quite a few separations — they’ve had to get used to a new community at preschool, and then a new one at kindergarten/elementary school,” she said. “These things are all about practice. The more time we practice doing something different, the more ready we are to take something new on.”

But Shlapobersky gives campers and families added support through the preparation process, including, beginning in May, weekly emails that focus on different aspects of camp — like what to expect on the first day of camp, what sort of communications there will be to and from camp and a glossary of camp lingo. New campers also receive introductory phone calls from counselors a couple of days before the session begins.

Additionally, Gilboa calls new parents to find out more about individual campers, making the camp more prepared for them when they arrive.

“For example, if we know they’re really into magic, we can have one of the counselors who loves magic tricks ready,” Shlapobersky said.

Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, offers a seven-day Ta’am Ramah (Taste of Ramah) to children entering third grade.

Rabbi Ethan Linden, the camp’s director, said there’s a higher ratio of staff for the youngest kids.

“We’ll have 20 to 25 kids and 10 staff counselors, plus a group leader,” he said, adding that for older kids, there are typically 14 kids to four counselors per bunk.

“We usually have more experienced counselors for the little ones,” he said. “We know we have to hold their hands more.”

Linden said he’s found that most kids are ready to start camp between the ages of 8 and 10 — and agrees with other directors that parents are sometimes the last to be ready. But Ramah in the Berkshires pays extra attention to first-time campers regardless of age.

“We’re particularly sensitive to issues of homesickness and integration,” he said.

Linden said the camp employs staffers called “yoetzim” — people who are a little older, usually parents — who can get involved in tough situations. The camp also does “a lot of training on bunk dynamics, trying to make sure that no campers slip through the cracks,” he said.

“We work to find that one thing the kid loves to do and then use that to ease the transition,” he said.

At Camp Modin, a pluralistic sleepaway camp in Maine and the oldest Jewish camp in New England, the youngest campers are 8. Director Howard Salzberg said Modin used to have even younger campers, but found they weren’t quite ready for the experience.

While Modin doesn’t have extra-short sessions for first-timers — the shortest “regular” session is 3 1/2 weeks — counselors for younger kids are trained to give more personalized attention, Salzberg said.

“We don’t expect these kids to unpack their trunks or do their own laundry,” he said. “We recognize that these kids need extra help changing out of their wet bathing suits, that we need to make sure they’re showering, that they know how to open their soap in the shower, that they’re combing their hair.

“With older kids, it’s more about mentoring. For younger years, it’s more parenting.”

And in some ways, the younger kids are easier, Salzberg added.

“They present different challenges, but honestly, younger kids can be a lot easier than hormonally challenged teenagers,” he said, laughing.

At Modin, newbies are matched with returning campers in a “big brother, big sister” program — the older campers call the younger campers before the session starts, and at camp, they meet on opening day. The older group gives the younger charges a small gift, like a goody bag or a Modin bracelet.

Regardless of what age a child starts camp, the camp directors have noticed that first-born kids tend to start camp older, and slightly more nervous, than their younger siblings.

“Younger siblings have parents more prepared for the sleepaway camp experience, are often familiar with the campgrounds from visiting day,” Alford said. “Plus, they’ve seen how much fun their older siblings have at camp.”

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