Better Bedtimes: How Being a Parent Changed Our Nights at Camp

Better Bedtimes: How Being a Parent Changed Our Nights at Camp

Alright, friends. I’m going to be vulnerable for a minute and admit something that’s a bit of a hard pill for me to swallow.

I’m a much better camp director now that I’m a parent myself.

Phew, ok.

It’s not that I was a bad camp director before! I worked hard every day to ensure our program was safe, fun, engaging, creative, and all the other adjectives we strive to bring to summer camp. I actively tried to coach staff to be better friends, mentors, imagineers, and role models for kids. I looked at programs with a critical eye, always searching for ways to improve safety, efficiency, and fun.

But, you don’t know what you don’t know. No matter how much time I spent studying, learning, and thinking about how to make camp better, I had blind spots that I just couldn’t internalize until I was living the life of raising my own child every single day. 

For example:

We have always struggled with homesickness at Camp AJ. As soon as the cabin lights went out on that first or second night, we’d have five, seven, sometimes 12 or more of our younger campers out on the porch quietly sobbing and looking for comfort and connection. Counselors would try to divide and conquer, using all the tools we’d taught them to help with homesickness. One might take a guitar and quietly sing to two or three young sisters, while another helped a few write letters home. A third would just sit and listen, empathizing with the child’s feelings and affirming that yes, it can be hard, but you can do hard things! Before I had my son I used to watch from afar, trying to tease out exactly what we could do to help ease this transition.

When my son was 3 however, it hit me like a ton of bricks – kids, especially young kids thrive on routine, and our bedtimes were anything but. We’d end our final activity for the day, shuttle campers through showers and bedtime hygiene, tuck them in if they asked, and then turn the lights off while a counselor read a book aloud. Nothing about that experience was reassuring to our campers. It didn’t take into account their feelings about the day, an opportunity to wind down, or connect with the adults at camp in a meaningful way that helped them feel safe and cared for. Of course kids were homesick!

Once the realization dawned on me, it was a matter of restructuring bedtime to be age appropriate, intentional about helping kids calm their bodies and full of connection with adults. In the first year of implementing this new strategy, we went from having up to 12 homesick campers each night to only 5 campers the entire summer.

First, we individualized the bedtimes based on the camper's age. My 7 year old is a zombie by 8:30, but teens have some of their best conversations in the evening. Next, we designed the bedtime routine to match each age’s best styles of engagement. Teens got reminders about bedtime hygiene, but also the chance to talk and connect with each other and their counselors about the day. Our older youth campers got the chance to stay up a bit later with the lights down low, reading to themselves or playing a quiet game of Uno or checkers with a friend before bed. 

For our youngest campers, the routine is as follows:

  1. Take a moment to straighten up the space and pick out clean clothes to wear for the next day.

  2. Pack your shower bag – each camper is provided a mesh bag into which goes shower supplies, wash cloth, towel, and a set of clothes to change into after shower. Grab and go for the next day!

  3. Turn the lights down low – we have overhead lighting, so we got a few lamps and lanterns to space around the room for less direct light. We also might turn on some quiet music during this time.

  4. Brush teeth, wash face, get a drink, use the bathroom one last time, then get into bed.

The final change I feel has been the most impactful, and we do this for every age of camper. When it’s time to start “Quiet Time” (the half hour before lights out), every cabin follows this plan.

  1.  When they’re ready, each camper may choose a small LED candle from a basket in the room. They turn it on, get into bed, and place the candle at the foot of the mattress where a counselor can see.

  2. One at a time, a counselor will go to a bed with a candle and sit with that child for a while. They’ll check in about their day, maybe ask what their favorite activity or meal item was, and give a sneak peek about the next day’s schedule. They’ll ask if the child wants a hug before bed, if they want to be tucked in, if they want someone to pray with (we’re a Christian camp), and if they’d like a book to look at or a song they’d like sung.

  3.  When they’re finished, the camper can choose to keep the candle near their head as a small night light, or the counselor will take it with them back to the basket.

  4. Once every camper has had a counselor check in with them the lights will go out, a white noise machine is turned on low, and a counselor will sing requests for bedtime songs or read a book aloud quietly.

I want to stress that this routine should be the same every night. Kids do best when they know what to expect and can find comfort in that certainty. No cutting corners if a cabin gets back late – do the whole routine. Be sure to make it available to all ages! I was skeptical our 14-15 year old campers would be into this, but I was very surprised at how many take advantage of the time to connect with a counselor. I also want to point out that this routine works for us but maybe not your camp – that’s ok! Any routine is important, and as long as it includes a slow step-down of energy, quiet voices, and the opportunity for kids to connect with their trusted adults in a way that makes them feel safe, you should see some benefits.

I am partial to the candles, though. You should keep that part.


Mike OBrienMike O'Brien
TSCS Contributor

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