How to Prepare for Summer Camp: A Checklist for Kids

A great summer camp experience starts in the weeks and months preceding your child’s session. From handling ADHD medications to phone communications, mastering these skills will get your child ready to embrace independence — responsibly and safely.

Summer camp drop off sign
Summer camp drop off sign

You’ve registered your child for camp this summer. Awesome. Now what?

Whether your child is attending a specialty, day, or overnight camp, the path to success begins well before they step foot on camp grounds. Beyond packing the essentials, you can do a lot to mentally and emotionally prepare your camper for the experience ahead, especially if your child is nervous and/or going to an overnight camp for the first time.

But your child isn’t the only one who needs to prepare. You do, too. Setting up your kid for a summer of growth means taking a step back to let them experience camp as fully and as independently as possible.

Follow these steps to get your child ready for an unforgettable summer camp experience.

1. Tour the Camp and Meet the Staff

Most day and overnight camps offer open houses. If you or your child didn’t get a feel for the camp’s physical space before signing up for camp, try to squeeze this in before camp starts, especially if your child is feeling anxious. Your child can also meet staff members along the way — another plus. Most camps publish photos of the layout and of staff on their websites or social channels, so be sure to check those out, too.

An open house my offer your child a chance to meet a helpful point person, like a guidance counselor or a unit leader, to whom they can speak if they need help during their time at camp.

[Haven’t Signed Up for Camp Yet? Ask These 6 Questions to a Prospective Camp]

2. Review Camp Chores and Duties

Be sure to inquire about the camp’s expectations for chores and/or cleanup, especially if your child is staying at an overnight camp. Ask, “What happens during bunk cleanup, and what skills my child work on before they head to camp so they can participate in cleanup time?”

Even if your child does work on these skills in advance, please know that camps understand and expect that many campers will need help performing chores and cleanup activities.

3. Understand How the Camp Manages Medication

Tell the camp about your child’s medication needs and ask how they’ll ensure a steady and reliable medication schedule. Many overnight camps have campers’ medications pre-packaged and sent directly to camp to easily dispense and manage by the time camp starts.

If you’re thinking of an ADHD medication vacation for your child during camp, think again. Like school, camp makes many demands that require your child’s full attention and symptom control. As a camp director, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen kids’ camp experiences not go as planned because their parents decided to give them a medication break. Avoid making medication adjustments right before camp starts or during camp, too. Bottom line: Camp is not the time for a medication vacation.

[Read: Skill-Building Ideas from ADHD Camps]

4. Respect the Camp-to-Home Communication Policy

If your child is attending a day camp, be sure to only contact the camp when absolutely necessary. Avoid helicopter parenting. Camps can tell — and do not appreciate it — when parents try to micromanage their child’s camp experience. (Read more about this in section seven below.) If you do need get in touch with a day camp, expect to speak to a member of the camp’s administrative staff, not to the camp’s counselors (who may be high school or college-age teens or young adults).

Many overnight camps allow campers to phone home only after their first week, when campers have adjusted to the new experience and overcome homesickness. Review this policy with your child and set ground rules (if they aren’t laid out in camp policies) about how often you’ll keep in touch. On your end, respect the camp’s communication policies, too. Do not call the camp demanding to speak with your child.

Many overnight camps also require campers to write home. Do not be alarmed if your child complains of their camp experience in their letters, especially if they weren’t thrilled about attending camp. As a child, even I used to write negative letters home at the beginning of overnight camp. Why? Because I was uncomfortable and I wanted my parents to worry about me. (My parents never responded to these negative letters.) But I always got through it — and your child will, too.

5. Remind Your Child to Drink Water

If your child takes stimulant medication, remember that dehydration is a common side effect, which can be of particular concern during summer camp. Let the camp know of this so they can help your child stay hydrated. It’s also good to check in with your child before they leave for camp; remind them that headaches, crankiness, and/or tiredness could all be signs that they need to drink more water.  Insulated water bottles that keep water cold for hours are particularly useful at camp. (Just don’t buy an expensive one in case your child loses it.)

6. Set Clear Expectations

The camp experience is, at least in part, about learning how to be part of a group. That said, your child should arrive at camp with the following expectations:

  • They will take part in activities and interact with other kids. Encourage your child to join activities they find fun and interesting, and let the camp know ahead of time if your child needs a bit of nudging to participate. (The camp shouldn’t force your child to join everything, but it’s also not a good idea for your child to be allowed to sit out of all events.)
  • They will not be on their device during the camp day. Be sure to talk to your child ahead of time about the camp’s electronics policy, especially if unplugging from devices is already a battle.
  • Camp is a learning experience… and not all learning experiences are comfortable. Camps strive to create a positive experience for all, but problems and conflict may still arise. Some campers may not get along, or there might be misunderstandings. Rather than tell your child that camp is utopia, keep it realistic by saying that things may come up and, if they do, there’s always someone at camp they can go to if they need help.

7. Reassure Your Child — and Yourself — That They’ll Do Well at Camp

In my time as a camp director, I’ve seen firsthand how some parents — unable to allow their child to have an independent experience at camp — end up sabotaging their child’s camp experience altogether.

If you want your child to do well in camp, convey your confidence in their ability to succeed in a new environment, even if they don’t feel confident about going to camp, and especially if you are anxious or worried for them.

  • Avoid saying things like, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.” Rescuing your child from the temporary discomfort of a new experience robs them of the opportunity to grow and learn about their abilities. Your child is resilient; lean into this truth to set them up for success.
  • Don’t make your child feel guilty for going to camp. Repeatedly saying things like “I can’t wait until you’re home” could make your child feel guilty for having an independent experience. At all costs, do not make your child feel responsible for any difficult feelings you may be having about their camp experience.
  • Focus on the positive. Ask, “What was fun at camp today?” or “What activities did you do?” instead of fishing for the negatives with questions like, “Was anybody mean to you today?” or “What bad things did you not like doing at camp?” Focusing on the negative will only teach your child to do the same.
  • What if things don’t work out? Have a backup plan for the summer if you have concerns about your child’s camp experience. Should your initial plans fall apart, explain to your child that not every camp will be a perfect fit, and that there’s always next summer to try again.

Summer Camp Tips: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “Choosing the Best Summer Camps for Your ADHD Child: A Guide for Parents [Video Replay & Podcast #442] with Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, which was broadcast on February 16, 2023.

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.