Is 13 too old to start camp?

by Karen Meister

I was a sleepaway camp counselor for many many years.  My favorite age was the 12, 13 and 14 year old campers.  They thought they knew EVERYTHING!!  It was great, exciting, fun, challenging and eye opening.  These kids seemed to know a lot more than I thought they should know.

And yet, they were well into their formative years.

You could play with them like pals, you could tell stories that they understood, and yet, they really watched you so closely… how you spoke to other people, how you handled pressure, how you disciplined, how I talked to boys…  They would then ask tons of questions.  Some were inappropriate and I had to learn how to handle those questions.  And some were questions they could not ask their parents, but felt safe asking me.  As their counselor, it was rewarding, challenging and so powerful.

And it is so hard to be a kid at that age! Kids develop at such different rates.  You have the guy who is growing a mustache next to the boy who’s voice has not yet changed.  A girl who looks like a woman next to the little girl who is still naive (that was me!!)  And of course on the inside, you have the one who is mature and in control next to the young teen who is still watching cartoons and is very happy to be a kid.

And 13 is a great time to go to camp, even if it is the first time.  But…


So what can a middle schooler achieve at camp?

1.  Who am I?

A middle schooler gets to go to camp and take off the trappings of right or wrong clothes, good or bad grades, cool or uncool at school, etc.  At camp, the right camp, a middle schooler gets a do-over.  No parent over the shoulder screening behavior from an adult perspective, no grades that measure success or failure.  At camp, a middle schooler gets to be good at something — best bed maker, best baseball player, best pottery coil maker….. whatever!

2.  Experiment – What Happens at camp Stays at camp!

At this time of confusion, experimenting without lifelong consequences is the best.  Trying new sports that you wouldn’t dare try at home for fear of teasing.  Talking to that girl and asking her to meet you at the Saturday night barbecue.  Try new things… get on the stage, hop on a horse, pick up a camera, try volleyball.  And after the summer is over, your teen returns home and if the experiment was not successful, he/she learned and can make changes at home.  And the negative stayed at camp….

3.  Safety net required

If they are going to feel free experimenting, they have to know that the counselors and other campers won’t tease them if the teen fails when trying something new.  Encouragement and support have to be the culture at the camp….  And counselors are really terrific mentors… they are close enough in age to allow the young teen to feel comfortable, and yet old enough to have passed through those middle school years successfully.  I loved this!!

4.  Be a Kid!

The young teens that are fully developed on the outside are expected to be a certain way on the inside, and yet, they just want to be a kid.  Forced to grow up so quickly, and be so responsible during the school year, summer offers a time to let your hair down and just be silly.

5.  Get back to nature.

Always so programmed and crammed with technology, the few weeks of summer camp offer a glimpse back at what the world is truly all about.  And believe me, it takes time to be comfortable with unplugging.  It takes at minimum two weeks to get rid of the tech-free jitters.   Middle schoolers need a chance to feel the power of nature and face to face conversations.

6.  Speaking of Face to Face

Talking instead of texting.  Skills that kids seem to have lost and yet need to develop as they make their way through the world. Camp forces conversation as you walk to an activity, around the campfire, and on the fields.  Late at night in the bunk, the teens really get to know each other and share their insides.  

7.  A big world

It is great when a young teen realizes that the world is so much more expansive than their little neighborhood.  At camp, you get to meet other kids from around the world and it puts those monstrous challenging moments at home into perspective — just meaningless.


Still time for late decision makers to get to camp.  But make sure you have someone to help find the right camp.  Keep in mind, if your middle schooler goes to a camp where all the other campers have been together since they were seven, don’t expect great success.  Selection must be wise!


Karen Meisterin partnership with Joanne Paltrowitz, works with the international consulting firm, Camp Experts and Teen Summers.  Feel free to contact Karen for complimentary assistance at or 305.931.KiDS or 305.931.5437.  Thousands of families have received confidential and complimentary guidance to select the best camp and teen programs from around the world.  Karen is also the Founder of the LifeMeisters.


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