Mom Stacey Udell couldn’t wait for visitors day when her daughter first went to sleepaway camp at age 9, seven years ago.
“About two hours in she said to me, ‘I think you better leave now. You don’t want to get stuck in traffic.’ We had just sat down to lunch.”
Udell now thinks the traditional day for parents, grandparents and siblings to check out what their campers are up to is definitely more about the grown-ups than the kids.
Routines for the kids are disrupted, and it can feel more about the goodies parents bring along than quality time. Like Udell’s daughter, the kids may be more excited about water fights, cabin pajama parties and special sports tournaments planned to burn energy and distract them the night after parents leave.
Are parent visiting days worth the trouble? Absolutely, camp directors said, though some acknowledged most kids could likely live without them.
Every camp has its own policy on whether and when visitors are welcome.
Some with shorter sessions have done away with a single visiting day for all parents and instead invite parents to come for a few hours when they can. Some provide two dates so divorced parents can visit separately, according to the American Camp Association. Some camps welcome visitors on the last day; others offer a grandparents or siblings day.
“Often the choice of where to go to summer camp will hinge in part on combining visitors day with other travel plans. Parents are pretty conscious of how to make it work,” said Chris Thurber, a psychologist and camp staff trainer.
Making it work depends a lot on making sure parents follow the rules. At some camps, that means honoring guidelines not to haul in an excess of gifts, favorite snacks or banned foods, or following prohibitions on care packages.
For kids whose families don’t plan to show up on visitors day, camps often organize trips off the grounds, such as a day at a nearby water park or beach. Or they seek volunteer parents to take on a child left alone.
Campers who experienced homesickness on arrival at camp may have a touch of it again once it’s time to say goodbye after a mid-session visitors day, but it usually doesn’t last more than a day or two, camp directors said.
Camps offer parents glimpses of daily life through their websites. That, said camp consultant Scott Arizala, could raise or lower parental angst, depending on whether they see smiles or sad faces.
“Parents are so connected these days,” he said. “Camp professionals themselves are starting to see less and less usefulness out of something like visitor day, and maybe more and more disruption.”
Parents aside, can kids do without visitors day? “Yeah, they could absolutely do without it,” said Marla Coleman, a past president of the ACA who operates a day camp in Long Island. “Camp becomes like this private world for a child where they get to live in an environment where they’re not connected to their parents at all times, but they do like to show their parents what they’re experiencing.”
Thurber, Coleman and others in the industry offer these tips:
Arrival and departure: Don’t be late. Nothing can kill a camper’s spirit like scanning the horizon for his tardy parents. And don’t linger at departure time, Thurber said.
Parents aren’t always great at goodbyes, Coleman said. “Be upbeat and happy. Wear sunglasses if you have to. You can say, ‘I’m glad that you’re having a great time. It was so great to see you here.’ Keep it short and sweet and don’t get overly emotional and clingy.”
Don’t bring armloads of stuff: “The kids don’t like being overindulged,” Coleman said. “Extravagance doesn’t fit into the camp environment.”
Know the rules: Camp consultant Jill Tipograph suggests double-checking policies. Will lunch be served, or do parents bring a picnic? Are there food restrictions due to allergies, or candy bans? If you’re allowed to take your child out of camp, make sure you check when you have to return them and plan some activities beforehand.