Tips from a Camp Pro

Planning to send your kids to camp this summer?


By Georgia Orcutt


Dr. Chris ThurberTo help you focus on the important issues that come up along the way, we talked with Chris Thurber, a veteran camper, board-certified clinical psychologist, educator and father who is well-known in camp circles for his research on homesickness. During the academic year, Thurber serves as the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In the spring and summer, he delivers training and consultation to camps worldwide, offering more than 50 different workshops on the camp experience. Thurber is the co-author of The Summer Camp Handbook (Perspective Publishing, 2000) and most recently, he launched the Expert Online Training Web site, which provides Internet-based video training modules for camp staff. Thurber has been involved in camping almost all of his life, first as a day camper, then as an overnight camper, then as a cabin leader and senior staff member at a traditional overnight camp for boys. He has been the waterfront director at Camp Belknap, in Wolfeboro, N.H., since 1989.

Here’s what he has to say about his favorite topic:

1 What does the summer camp experience really give to kids?

Camp accelerates children's growth in ways that other experiences do not. Unlike school, vacation, or neighborhood experiences, day camps and resident camps are the only institutions that combine community living, being away from home, a natural outdoor setting, and a recreational premise. Where else does that foursome exist? When combined, these four factors produce a kind of magic that increases children's social skills, sense of adventure, selfreliance and self-esteem. Perhaps the magic lies in campers' most common description of what they like best about camp: “I get to be myself.”

2 What’s changed at camps since you first went to one?

On the plus side, camp staff are better trained than they were 10, 20 or 30 years ago. No longer is it enough to throw a bunch of college students into the mix and hope for the best. Camp directors have embraced a new level of professionalism that includes professional-grade training for their staff. The complexity of children’s development has also increased and so has the intensity of staff training. On the minus side, parents have a harder time letting go than ever before. Families have become accustomed to constant electronic communication, and parents and children find it increasingly difficult to sever this “digital umbilical.”

3 What mistakes can parents avoid when trying to find the right camp for their kids?

Avoid equating price with quality. Avoid camps that are non-accredited by the American Camp Association. Avoid thinking that there is only one best camp. Look for camps that match your child’s interests, abilities and developmental level. Also, avoid making “pick-up deals,” such as: “If you feel homesick, I’ll come to get you,” and avoid taking total control of the search for the right camp. Your child should be involved in the decision every step of the way. This increases a sense of ownership that really enhances adjustment.

4 How can parents help prevent their kids from getting homesick?

Arrange for your child to spend practice time away from home. A long weekend at a friend’s house is a good start. This experience without parents around helps teach them effective coping strategies. When it’s time to go to camp, pack pre-stamped, pre-addressed envelopes with paper and pens in a zip-top freezer bag. If you want replies to your written correspondence, you have to make it easy. And watch my DVD, The Secret Ingredients of Summer Camp Success (available for ordering online) which includes homesickness prevention tools that research has shown helps prevent intense homesickness.

5 What specifically do you teach camp counselors?

My in-person and online educational workshops focus on five areas: supervision, behavior management, safety, play and child development. Most camp counselors do not have children of their own, so I try to share a parent’s perspective on the magnitude of responsibility they shoulder. Camp staff learn a lot on the job, so the very best camps use an apprentice model of training and cultivate all or almost all of their staff from the camper ranks. As these young men and women move from being senior campers to apprentice leaders, leaders-in-training, and finally full-fledged cabin leaders or camp counselors, they are mentored by older, more experienced staff. This model ensures that staff receive lots more training than could ever be accomplished in a single so-called “orientation week.” Parents should ask camp directors how their staff are trained and look for a camp with a staff that is learning over a period of years, not days.



Georgia Orcutt is a former editor for Dominion Parenting Media.