I sent my shy, reserved 5-yr-old to general day camp at the Y. We are members, the schedule is great for parents who work full time, and I had friends who loved the program. Huge mistake. She hated it and threw such a fit that I had to stay home from work with her on the last day.
What I failed to consider was that it was not the best set-up for a child hesitant in new situations. Logistical aspects which are heaven for high-energy extroverts can be overwhelming for shy kids. First, there is the multi-aged, open air drop-off and pick-up area where kids are expected to mingle, play, and sing silly songs. If you don’t have a friend and aren’t sure how to approach strangers, this is difficult to navigate. Then there were the “out” games. For a self-conscious child, getting tagged out in each team game is very uncomfortable. I could totally identify with this; I never liked team sports.
Ironically, my daughter’s favorite camp that year was theatre camp. One would think that acting would not be the best activity for a shy child (although many famous actors say they suffer from shyness); however, she found a more structured camp more to her liking.
She went on to enjoy other YMCA camps such as dance, gymnastics, art, and baking. And she never went with a friend. As long as there was a structured curriculum and less free-for-all time, she was fine.
It’s now six years later, and I would not describe her as shy or quiet. Her confidence with public speaking and performing makes me jealous, and she can be quite gregarious in familiar groups or settings. However, she still hangs back in new situations and prefers to watch first before diving in.
Knowing your child’s preferences for certain environments and programs can help you choose the best summer camps, regardless of activity type.
Shyness vs. Introversion
Being shy is different than being an introvert. You can probably discern if your child is one or both without having to make her take a Myers Briggs test.
Introverts enjoy their alone time and need it to re-energize. Shy people often want to be with others but have too much anxiety over making it happen. They need more time to adjust to unfamiliar situations and are often hesitant to try something new.
Shy children are often described as “reserved,” and can be viewed as standoffish because they don’t initiate conversation. They are also likely to feel uncomfortable in large, loud groups.
Best Types of Day Camps
A structured environment may help shy children become engaged more easily.
Pretend you’re at a networking event. Do you prefer to grab a cocktail, mingle, and figure out who to talk to in a room full of strangers? Or do you prefer being placed at a table and starting with an ice-breaker activity? The first day of camp is somewhat like this.
Camps that offer specific instruction like dance, theatre, or science are good options. There is a program that everyone follows, and the teacher tells you what to do. A camp where you work in small groups is also good for introverts because it provides a framework in which to meet new people. Culinary camp is a great example.
Sports camps can work well also. You don’t have to be outgoing to play, especially if you’re confident in your abilities. You can kick the soccer ball around for a few hours without really having to talk to anyone.
If you’re unsure about the logistical set-up of the camp, call the director and ask for more details. They have experience in working with all types of children and can help guide you.
Another idea is to maintain a familiar setting. Registering your child for multiple weeks at the same location can make a big difference. Even if the campers change weekly, she will feel comfortable with the surroundings.
You can reduce some of the anxiety by eliminating some of the unknown factors.
Find out if the camp hosts an open house. If not, ask to schedule a time to tour the facility and meet a couple of the instructors or counselors. That way your child will know the layout and see familiar faces on the first day.
Talk about the daily schedule so your child knows what to expect.
Practice introducing yourself to new people and discuss how to start a conversation in a non-dorky way. Sometimes kids don’t really care about names and prefer to jump right to “what school do you go to?” or “have you ever been to Disney?” Check out these introduction tips from the Sunshine Parenting blog.
Most camps want to be inclusive and try to make every type of child feel welcome. However, there are some environments that are more nurturing and conducive to shy kids.
Smaller camps that provide a more intimate setting. May feel more comfortable with 100 campers rather than 400.
Look for catchphrases such as “friendly competition” or “very active”. These may indicate that the camp atmosphere could be overwhelming for less outgoing kids.
To Friend or Not to Friend?
Many kids, shy or not, refuse to go to camp without a friend, sending moms into a frenzied Facebook hunt for friends to register with. I have mixed feelings about this and have never made it a priority when choosing camps, mainly due to conflicting interests and schedules.
Going to camp with a friend can end up being a crutch and prevent shy children from taking the trouble to talk to others. It’s important to learn how to walk into a new situation and be able to make friends. Children who always attend camp with a friend miss out on developing this skill.
Practice, Practice, Practice
While shyness is in no way a character flaw, our society is not set up to accommodate such tendencies. We have to learn how to navigate in a world that favors outgoing people. The more we encourage our kids to practice dealing with new people and situations, the more comfortable the will feel as adults. They may not like it, and it may never be their preference, but at least they will know how to handle themselves.
If you have a mix of introverts and extroverts in your family, I highly recommend this book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.
Other good tips can be found here: