Lessons Learned at Sleep-Away Camp


My family recently attended a sleep-away camp through the YMCA. Our family of 4 slept in our own bunkhouse for 3 nights and enjoyed 4 beautiful days on Lake Ossipee. We participated in all of the traditional camp activities and we ate meals in the dining hall. We shared the communal bathrooms with other families. There were fires nightly, and morning swims to an island before breakfast. 

Traditionally, campers need to be around 8-9 years old to attend sleep-away camp – many are 2-week sessions. Some allowances are made for younger campers who have older siblings and some camps allow for one-week sessions. My boys are 7 and 10, and were both somewhat interested and very nervous about the idea of going. Through my research I learned that some of the YMCA camps plan parent/child weekends, week-long family camps, and shorter holiday weekend ones. We camped over Labor Day Weekend.

I wasn’t so “into” the idea of going myself (at first), but wanted the opportunity to show my boys what sleep-away camp is like. Neither my husband nor I had grown up going to traditional sleep-away camp, so this was a new experience for all of us. Together we braved some very cold nights and navigated bathroom trips with headlamps at 2am. We learned that breakfast at 8am sharp meant business, and was food was cleared away by 8:20. We had a ton of fun and left dirty and tired. After 4 days together we drove home still singing camp songs, and planning our return next summer.

We left with our hearts a little bit fuller, and some lessons learned – for all of us. I want to share some of our highlights of lessons learned….

The children:

  • Learned to be flexible. The dining hall served one option for meals, with ample sides like salad/bread and fruit. Initially they complained about the food, but after a few very busy days, they were hungry – and ate what was served. There was no macaroni and cheese or chicken fingers anywhere. I liked that I had NO control over the meals, wasn’t privy to the menu in advance, and wasn’t able to make back-up choices for when they refused to eat. They learned that lesson quickly.
  • Followed the rules. There was a set routine everyday, which included rest time after lunch and an all-quiet time by 9pm. I didn’t make them rest or go to bed, but they did without objection. They needed it (as did the adults) – and that’s what every other family did too. They accepted someone else’s rules and followed along. I was kind of shocked at the rest time, to be honest. And I loved it. 
  • Exercised their independence. There were NO screens at camp – no phones, iPads, or smart watches. Every day at regular intervals, a bugle rang throughout camp that signaled activities starting/ending, and meals. My boys brought their bikes and were free to go to activities without us, and knew to return back to their cabin at the bugle. I loved that they had that freedom, and could show me that they were responsible.

The parents:

  • Let go. For the first time ever, I was not the activity director for my family. I did not plan/cook the meals, or do much cleanup after. We watched the loons and saw bald eagles. I read my book and swam, and knew that my children were safe. I put my phone down (there was no service anyways), and unplugged from it all. 
  • Remembered how to play. As a family, we completed ropes courses, learned archery and made pottery. We tried to sail, canoed and kayaked, and hooked a fish. We had trampoline launch competitions into the lake. We discovered a little island by boat and hiked it. Our kids watched mom and dad learn alongside them, and it was valuable for us all.

The benefits of sleep-away camp for children are pretty extensive. Children spend time outdoors, immersed in nature, making new friends. They boost skills like confidence and resilience. Campers can gain a broader perspective about their world and develop a sense of community. As adults, we felt the physical and mental-health benefits of the experience, and learned some pretty neat life-lessons together as well.  

We can’t wait to go back next year!

Thinking about sending your child to sleep-away camp? We have an extensive directory for all the camps near the Seacoast! Check them out and find one that’s a good fit.