What Your Kid’s Camp Leader Wishes You Knew

I love kids. I have spent the last ever many years steeped in them. Not just my kids. I like your kids, too. I have led enrichment-type programs in different venues for a very long time, and it’s becoming more and more apparent that parents aren’t always clear on the expectations. Most of them want to do the right thing, they just aren’t sure what that is. If I could sit down across the table from a parent signing their kid up for their first enrichment adventure, here’s what I’d say.

1) Don’t sweat it if your kid is shy the first time around. Picture it. You walk into a place you have never seen before, and a bunch of strangers are waiting for you. And they already know your name. It’s enough to make the bravest adult want to run for cover. Now imagine you’re three feet tall and the person you love most is poking you in the back saying “You’re not shy! Why are you acting like this?”

We aren’t judging your parenting because your child is hiding behind you. I promise that your kid won’t be the only one who has a moment of doubt when they walk in the door. A good instructor will know how to break the ice, and by the second or third class, your kid may be a pro.

2) They don’t have to know all the answers before they get there. When I teach an art class, for example, I don’t care if the kids know their Dali from their Deco. I can teach them that. Leaders ask questions not because they expect that the kids know the answers, but to encourage critical thinking. If no one in the class knows the answer, a good instructor won’t let the crickets chirp for long. They’ll ask the question a different way, or even share the answer.

Your child’s academic knowledge doesn’t matter. It’s far more important that that they know how to interact with other kids. If they’re toddlers or preschoolers and it’s their first time at the rodeo, you can help guide them in that process. Which brings me to my next point.

3) If it’s a Mommy and Me type of class, your participation is mandatory. I cannot stress this point enough. The activities in these classes are ones that require your assistance. Staying glued to a cellphone or talking to the parent beside you in the back of the room is rude and sets a bad example for the kids. If mom and dad are chatting, the kids will, too. These classes are designed for grownups and the children they love to interact together. And if Little Missy is misbehaving, it’s up to you to take care of it. You know her best, after all. There’s a code of conduct at most programs, and refunds are rarely given if a participant is ousted for bad behavior. Don’t let it get to that point. Nip it in the bud.

Image credit: icanhascheezeburger.com

Image credit: icanhascheezeburger.com

At my toddler programs, I completely expect the kids will act like toddlers, the good, the bad, and the throwing-themselves-on-the-floor-and-shrieking. I get that. But there’s a line between just being a three-year-old and disrupting the entire class. Know where that line is. If you’re unsure, ask your leader. They can give you guidance and also help you find a quiet place to let your little critter get control of themselves again.

4) You aren’t expected to know all the answers, either. And even if you do, it’s a good idea to keep them to yourself. Unless the leader asks the adults specifically, the instructor is usually looking for an answer from the kids. You’ve had a few more trips around the sun than the kids. We’d be shocked if you didn’t know at least some of the answers. Keep a low profile unless the instructor asks. If you’re whispering the answers in your child’s ear, examine your motives. If you’re enjoying having a cool discussion with your kid, awesome. If you’re hoping they will blurt it out to the group, it’s best to sit quietly.

5) Dress your child appropriately for the activities. The most terrifying sight in the world to me is a little girl in a darling heirloom, hand-smocked dress. On finger paint day. Or a kid who shows up for camp at the nature center in flip flops. Because you know who gets to hear about those red paint stains that won’t come out or make the decision on whether to cancel the planned hike for the whole group or send a kid out on the trail in footwear they could get hurt in? The teacher.

The kids don’t get points for matching bows and slippers. I don’t care if they show up on the doorstep dressed like orphans. The important bit is that they are safe and comfortable. It’s hard to be comfortable when someone is hanging over your shoulder saying “DON’T WIPE THAT ON YOUR DRESS!” Close-toed shoes and an outfit they can get dirty in fits the bill in almost every situation.

6) Respect age guidelines. Camps and enrichment classes are designed with particular ages in mind, and to try to slip a kid into the wrong age-bracket does no one any favors. Many years ago, someone begged the director of a program I worked for to let her kindergartner into a class with his first-grader best buddy. The director reluctantly agreed. It was a disaster. The younger child couldn’t yet read, and many of the activities involved basic reading skills. The kid was miserable. Don’t throw your child in over their head. Don’t let them be bored by sending them in with the younger kids, either.

It always makes me giggle when parents call me and insist that they have a “very mature four-year-old.” Giggle and then sigh because then it’s my job to explain that we can’t put their preschooler in the kindergarten camp.

7) Don’t keep disabilities a secret. Sometimes parents are afraid to disclose disabilities for fear the program won’t accept their child, but as their teacher I’d sure like a heads up if a kid has an issue that impacts the way they function in a group. I want every child to succeed, but success is a lofty goal if I don’t have a basic understanding of what a child needs. On papier-mache day when we’re messing about with balloons, I’d like to know ahead of time if a participant is triggered by loud noises or has sensory issues and doesn’t like to touch things like paste, or if they need some assistance navigating the pitfalls of prepubescent social interaction. There’s nothing I like better than seeing a kid try out something they never thought they could do.  Help me to help your child. And for the love of muffins, please, please, please let us know up front if your kid has any life-threatening allergies.

8) You aren’t the only paying customer. I understand that parents pay a bundle for kids’ activities. I respect the monetary investment. But remember, unless it’s a private lesson, other parents paid for the experience, too. Your child can’t be the star of every show. If your kid is hogging the spotlight or is being disruptive, you owe it to the other parents to rein them in. You’d expect the same consideration, right?

9) It’s supposed to be fun! Enrichment classes are just that, a fun way to experience new things. Hanging over a kid’s shoulder at art camp and insisting they color in the lines or critiquing racing form at track camp is counter-productive. Kids need to feel safe trying new things without the expectation of perfection. So do all of us, really.

10) Keep expectations realistic. You read #8, right? The bit about it being fun? Not every kid is Pavlova or Baryshnikov. Some of them are just regular kids who like to dance. An enrichment camp isn’t for the budding professional. It’s a starter experience. If your kid tries the diving board for the first time because of swim camp, you can count it as a huge success, even if the resultant dive was my personal favorite, the belly flop. If they had a great time at track camp, does it matter that they never ran under a fifteen minute mile? I think not. Don’t expect your child to be ready to win Olympic equestrian gold at the end of the week if the closest they had been to a horse before camp was a merry-go-round. The name of the game is try. And fun. Try and have fun. It’s a good motto!

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10 thoughts on “What Your Kid’s Camp Leader Wishes You Knew

  1. When you say you like all kids, does that include almost 14-year-olds with anxiety who is so sweet and loving and suddenly goes bat shit crazy (anxiety) and for some reason just doesn’t fit in? He has a lot of friends, but not really. Thanks for letting me vent in my comment box.

    • #3 is the one that is broken in nearly every venue I have ever taught. The saddest thing was when a camper brought his cell with him. He was four. I wondered if his mom thought her son would be somewhere without supervision and need to call her, and if so, why would she dream of leaving him with us!

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