By Lisa Rapaport

(Reuters Health) – Kids may have a much better – and safer – time at summer camp when parents plan ahead to make sure programs are a good fit for their child and capable of handling any health issues that may arise, U.S. pediatricians say.

By the time school’s out for summer, parents and guardians should feel confident that their children are ready for camp and that their chosen camp is well prepared for their children, according to a policy statement on summer camp health and safety issued June 21 by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“When families find the right camp for their child, the camp experience has been proven to have a lasting and positive effect on psychosocial development, self-esteem, relationships, independence, leadership, values, and even spark a willingness to try new things,” said Dr. Michael Ambrose, a pediatrician at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and lead author of the statement.

“Many children in urban and suburban settings especially benefit from the opportunity to overcome a lack of connection with nature, which has been associated with depression, attention disorders, and obesity,” Ambrose said by email.

Summer camps have been a rite of passage for many American children for more than 150 years, Ambrose and colleagues write in the statement published in Pediatrics.

Today, more than 14,000 daytime and overnight camps exist in the U.S., and more than 14 million children attend one of these camps, according to the policy statement.

To ensure the camp is a good fit for kids, parents should as much as possible involve their children in the selection process and choose a program that matches their child’s interests and abilities, doctors recommend.

This includes making sure camps are equipped to handle common problems like homesickness as well as social and emotional needs of campers. It also means ensuring that camps are able to manage any chronic physical or mental health conditions that campers have.

“Some children may not be ready for camp from a development perspective, which could impact their overall camp experience,” Ambrose said. “When a particular camp is a poor fit for an individual child, it may affect their behavior and cause them to withdraw or act out.”

Particularly for inexperienced and younger campers, parents can minimize the potential for problems by practicing time away from home before sending kids to camp, whether with sleepovers or day-long hikes or other activities with friends or relatives.

Parents should also make sure camps have up-to-date health and vaccination records for their children and ensure there is a nurse on site and a plan in place to address any illnesses or injuries. Parents should review camp health policies, too, and make sure to make advance plans for handling chronic issues like asthma or ADHD or food allergies during camp.

Camp is also the wrong time to make changes to children’s medication regimens, said Dr. Amy Hepper, who teaches at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor and is also medical director of Camp Bold Eagle in Ypsilanti. This is especially true with ADHD.

“Camp is a new, overwhelming and at times overstimulating place, and keeping them on their medication helps the camper and the staff navigate this more smoothly,” Hepper, who wasn’t involved in the statement, said by email.

Good communication also goes a long way, Hepper said.

“Knowing how parents would handle issues at home helps us handle them at camp when parents are away,” Hepper said.

Parents should also be talking to their kids about camp long before summer starts to help them focus on aspects that will be fun and exciting and work through any questions or concerns children might have, doctors advise.

This can help find the right camp, and also help kids cope when they’re having hard time.

“As always, having a good relationship with your child where they feel like they can talk to you is the most important thing a parent can do to help their child navigate difficult situations such as a bad experience at camp,” Hepper said.

SOURCE: Pediatrics, online June 21, 2019.