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To Camp or Not to Camp

Hello <<First Name>>

Welcome back to Toddlerland where you and your family are likely shifting into the low-key days of summer. It’s a time when your toddler can spend more time outside freely exploring with friends, siblings, neighbors and cousins. Occupational therapist Angela Hanscomb and the author of Barefoot & Balanced discusses direct links between a child’s lack of free outdoor time and a decrease in attention, focus and engagement in school. In other words—boost your child’s mental and physical abilities by encouraging outdoor time this summer!

WHY IT’S IMPORTANT: Free-flowing, unstructured outdoor time—in the backyard, at the beach or at the neighborhood playground—is essential for your little one’s physical, mental and emotional development, Through outdoor activities, they build confidence in themselves and what their bodies can do, challenge themselves to try harder and more complicated physical tasks, and they can achieve greater mental clarity and emotional regulation, as well. These are capabilities that provide the healthy foundation needed for your child’s ongoing development that includes learning and thinking.

Camp or no camp? 
This being said, I want to address a question you may have over the next few months—should I send my toddler to summer camp? This question comes up often and this quote from a parent just this month captures the conflict many parents feel:

 “So many of our friends are sending their kids to summer camp. I was planning to do fun daily activities with our children outside with me or with grandma or our sitter. I would rather not have our 3- and 5-year-old go to camp, but everyone else seems to be encouraging them to go. Will our kids miss out on something if they do not go to day camp?”

In the not too distant past, summer camps were only available to kids ages 8 and up, but now there are camps for toddlers as young as two-years-old! While I applaud the spirit of many summer camps that encourage open-ended outside exploration, my observation is that generally speaking, most children under the age of 5 are not ready for the camp experience. Of course, the reasons for this vary from child to child, but most toddlers regard camp as another separation from you, where they’re introduced to new people and new rules in an unfamiliar setting. Building trusting relationships is a big one for this age group, so separating from a parent for a so-called “fun” day at camp can unhinge many young children. Too much structured time at this young age, even at a fun outdoor camp, also can work against their best development.

If you’re on the fence, skip it.
My professional advice is that if you’re on the fence about enrolling your child in camp, I suggest you skip it this summer (and next summer, too). On the other hand, if your child readily separates from you, jumps at new experiences, has expressed interest in going or has a friend who’s also signing up for the camp, and the camp encourages open and free play, then summer camp could be a positive experience for your child. Rather than feeling pressured by other parents to send your toddler to camp at this tender age, I encourage you to think about what your child needs. Take cues from him or her and also consider what summer experience you want for your child. If it is open and free time, then your toddler doesn’t need camp. Know that summer can be fun and stimulating for your child by simply spending time outdoors with you or a caregiver, your neighbors, relatives or friends. They still need some structure to their daily routine, but it can be set by you and the other adults in their lives (my next newsletter will address this).

Keep it simple and close to home.
Some of my best summer memories are of running endlessly through the sprinkler in our front yard with friends from the neighborhood. A simple activity, but joyous and fun. Look for easy ways to create and enjoy time outside—picnics, capturing bugs, planting in the garden, playing at the park, and taking walks. Each experience builds memories.

My boys and I used to explore new playgrounds in our city, especially those with water. If you live near any body of water, the opportunities for refreshing, summer fun are endless. The main point is to enjoy the next months of longer, warmer days, and to spend as much time as you can outside, relaxed and enjoying your time together. In fact, if you sit back and watch from the sidelines with a good book in hand, you may find that your child creates even more fun outdoors than you ever imagined!

Have general summertime insights of your own? I’d love to hear what works (and doesn’t) for your family. Share your comments on Facebook or Twitter. Do you have additional questions about how to make the transition to summer easier and more relaxing? Leave your questions on Facebook.

For more toddler insight, visit HOW TODDLERS THRIVE and feel free to share what you've read here with other parents on the playground!

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