Is 9 years old too young for summer camp?

Your Life
Dr. Cathleen McGreal
May, 2016

My daughter really wants to go to summer camp, but she's only 9. Is she old enough? How do I know she'll be safe, and that she won't be homesick? 

When I was a child, the Girl Scouts in our parish attended week-long summer trips to Camp River Glen, in California’s San Bernardino Mountains. After our Brownie “fly-up” ceremony, we wondered when we would get to go on this adventure. Families made different decisions about participation. Some girls attended as soon as they met the minimum age, while others waited a year or two. I have fond memories of those days filled with hiking, swimming, campfires and songs. You want your daughter to have a great experience. There are several factors that you can consider to determine whether the timing is right.

Are the expectations realistic? Talk to your daughter about why she wants to go to camp. Is her perception of camp based on unrealistic media portrayals? Or does she have a good understanding of it based on the photos and stories of other children? Does she actually have a desire to go to an overnight camp or is there one activity that intrigues her? For example, if she wants to learn how to ride a horse, then lessons might be possible near your home. Although 9 would be considered young, in general, it may be that you decide it would be appropriate for her.

Does she have camp experience? Participating in a local day camp is helpful before attending an overnight camp. Children learn how to negotiate play activities with their peers. Traditional day camps introduce children to a variety of skills; children’s talents will differ depending on the craft or activity. This is a good opportunity to socialize and learn in a new context. Day camp has the added benefit of an end-of-the-day “debriefing” with parents. What did she enjoy? What did she find challenging? Her reactions to day camp provide clues about her readiness for an overnight camp.

Coping with homesickness. Throughout our lives, we have to deal with feelings of homesickness. College students may feel homesick as they adjust to a more independent lifestyle. Even as adults, we may find ourselves longing for “home” after a job transfer. It is OK if your daughter experiences moments of homesickness; this is part of adjusting to new contexts and social relationships. The concern would be if the homesickness became severe and prevented active participation in camp. A child with previous day-camp experience who has realistic expectations, and who initiates participation in an overnight camp, would be more likely to cope effectively with homesickness.

In order to address your concerns about safety, look into whether or not the camp is accredited through the American Camp Association. Talk to other parents whose children have attended the camp. Do their children return the next summer? Turn to prayer for your daughter’s experience and your own concerns: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” (Jos 1:9)