When your children go to camp, support them with fun-filled letters

Mail call is one of the highlights of a young camper's day, but parents need to understand what to say and what not to say in letters to their children. Through letters, parents can offer support and give their children confidence and encouragement to enjoy their stay to the fullest.

''Letters reassure the kids that they are loved,'' says David Williams, assistant director of camping services for the Houston YMCA.

The tone of the letters is as important as the number of letters, if not more so.

Mr. Williams gives some tips on letters to campers:

Be cheerful and positive. Assume your child is having a good time and say so in your letters.

Show enthusiasm and ask questions about the food, the activities, the staff, the weather, new friends, new experiences. Questions are asked not so much in hope of getting answers but to suggest to the child what to be aware of during his stay.

Do not write bad news of any kind.

Do not say how much you miss your child or how much the dog or cat or gerbil misses her. Such reminders only reinforce any homesick feelings.

Do not write a lot of home news that will make him feel he is missing something. Save the list of movies you saw or places you went to eat until your camper comes home.

Do not scold your child for not writing. For most children, writing letters is a wearisome task. To encourage writing, send addressed and stamped post cards to camp with your child

Do not panic when you receive that first letter from your camper that says she is miserable. Jean Barnhill, director of a south Texas Girl Scout camp, says , ''Letters from camp often represent chain reactions within a tent. Most girls really don't know what to write. They hear one girl say the food is terrible and think, 'Yeah, I'll write that, too.' ''

Do not offer to come get your child if he gets homesick or suggest that he call home. These suggestions often stem from a parent's lonely feelings rather than from real concern for the child, Ms. Barnhill says. ''If the camp has been carefully chosen, there should be nothing to worry about,'' she explains. ''Children will adapt more easily if their parents seem confident that they, the children, will be fine.''

Check with the camp staff before sending food. Many camps discourage edibles for two reasons: Either the food attracts bugs or animals like raccoons, or there is usually not enough for the entire unit.

Write often. To avoid mail mix-ups, address several letters to your child, date them according to when you want them delivered, and give them to the counselors when you arrive at camp. Or mail a letter a day or two before you take your child to camp and hope it will arrive that first day at mail call.

Any cheery letter is fun for your camper to receive, but if you want to send a special treat, try a few of these:

* Send a comic, paperback, or crossword puzzle book.

* Write a message in code, but make it simple enough so your camper is not frustrated. One code might substitute numbers for letters (A equals 1, B equals 2, etc.) or assign a number to each vowel (A equals 1, E equals 2, etc.).

* Write one word per post card, number the cards, and mail one card each day.

* Write a post card to everyone in the child's tent. On each card, write a word or part of a sentence and number the cards. Tell them to put the cards in order to read the message.

* End a post card or letter in mid-sentence. Add ''to be continued.'' Finish the sentence on a card mailed the next day.

* Cut a circle out of paper and, beginning at the outer edge, write your letter around in circles.

* Paste a letter, hand-drawn picture, or magazine photo on a piece of cardboard and cut it into puzzle pieces.

* Paste cartoons or jokes on a post card.

* Send a newspaper or magazine article about someone the child knows (only if good news) or on a subject in which he is interested.

Unfortunately, at probably every session of every camp some child does not receive any mail.

''It's like someone is passing out candy and leaves you out,'' Ms. Barnhill says.

So however you correspond with your camper, just do it and do it often.

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