The end of June is called Camping Week. School’s out and camp trunks, packed weeks ago, have already been delivered to overnight camps everywhere, sitting quietly in bunks awaiting the arrival of excited campers. At the camp bus, after seeing their children stash their sports equipment, up the steps they climb to meet their summer sisters, brothers and counselors. Parents and caregivers can be seen high-fiving, and heard screaming with glee as buses pull out of parking lots. Overnight campers now embark on a summer of fun and sun, activities, sports and specials, living in a bunk with same-age camp-mates, no parents to boss them around, and are supervised by a few bunk counselors who range in age from almost 18 to 22 years old. The ages of the campers and bunk supervisors is where you should start to pay a little more attention here. The counselors are your parental supervisory stand-ins (supervised themselves by senior supervisors, camp directors and owners.)
Instead of writing about what parents and caregivers could/would/should do about their children’s oral health care, or what they expect to happen while their kids are living away from home in a camp bunk, I decided to inquire about what really goes on with kids, camp and teeth from a former longtime overnight camper and counselor. I talked to a 22-year old recent college graduate, who I'll refer to as "JK" who attended and enjoyed a popular and well-respected Pennsylvania summer overnight camp, as a camper, waitress and counselor, from ages 10 to almost 21 years old. Here’s what she had to share from behind the scenes.
Dr. G: As a young camper, do you remember brushing your teeth every morning and night?
JK: Yes; we had to! There was always a counselor with us in the bathroom to make sure we brushed our teeth.
Dr. G: What about flossing?
JK: I never flossed. No kids floss their teeth at camp! Parents think they do, but they don’t.
Dr. G: Counselors didn’t make you floss?
JK: No. Some kids don’t bring floss. The ones that bring it and see the other kids not flossing, they decide they’re not flossing either. It’s a struggle. Our job was to make sure each camper showered every day and brushed their teeth morning and night. In addition to washing up, staying safe, getting to bed and waking up on time, writing home, and basic things like that.
Dr. G: What about kids with braces? Any special supervision or treatment?
JK: As counselors, we responded to their issues when they came up, and they’d go to the infirmary so their parents could be called; issues with bands or something sticking them in their mouth. The only time kids would leave camp was for an orthodontia appointment; a parent would come up and take their child to an appointment at home, or have them seen by a local dentist recommended by the camp director or doctor.
Dr. G: What did you do about a camper’s loose tooth, or a chipped tooth from sports?
JK: Lots of our campers had age-related loose teeth. We’d look at the tooth and ask if we could see how loose it was, and if it was ready to come out we’d ask the camper if they wanted us to pull it out. Most said “yes.” We’d take a wad of tissue or toilet paper and pull it out, then have them rinse their mouth. They loved showing everyone their tooth that came out.
Dr. G: Did the Tooth Fairy make an appearance that night?
JK: No, but the counselors would buy the camper a little gift. We told the little kids the Tooth Fairy doesn’t know how to get to overnight camp, but they’d see them in the fall.
Dr. G: What did you do for toothaches? Like if a camper had a cavity, or sensitivity?
JK: Campers were not permitted to have pain medication in the bunk so we sent them to the infirmary to be checked out, and if necessary, their parents would be called. A lot of times the parents gave their approval for the camper to take Ibuprofen, or to be seen by a local dentist recommended by the camp. The camp would make all the arrangements.
Dr. G: What about sports and sports injuries of the mouth or teeth? What did you see and how were problems handled?
JK: Girls and boys were totally different. I think I was the only girl at camp with a sports mouth guard and that was because my father made me have one; he’s a sports coach and was a health and Phys. Ed. teacher. Mostly the older boys (11+) brought mouth guards and if they had them, they used them. If anyone got hit in the mouth, they’d go to the infirmary for ice on a lip and if there was a tooth chipped, parents were called immediately. Camp directors, doctors and nurses take all injuries very seriously and get camper’s immediate attention and medical care.
Dr. G: What about meals in the Dining Hall? I know it’s a great social activity but do counselors encourage good nutrition and eating healthy habits? Camp provides balanced meals and choices for all kinds of eating habits?
JK: Yes. Camp serves three meals a day with protein, whole grains and breads, fruit, vegetables and lots of choices for drinks. There are also outdoor BBQ s and camp-outs. When I was a new camper, my mother once called the camp office and asked them to check if I was drinking my milk. They actually checked to make sure I was then drinking my milk, every day, and I was really angry. I wrote a card home that said, “Do not call and ask if I’m drinking milk. Camp is about having fun, not drinking milk.”
Canteen is part of a nighttime activity when campers are allowed to purchase snacks and ice cream, but otherwise it’s healthy eating. Also my camp didn’t allow food (mainly to cut out junk food and candy) to be sent as care packages. The only junk food and drinks in the bunk arrived only on Visiting Day and the rule was everything was to be eaten or tossed out by bedtime.
So my advice to parents and caregivers as your oral health care provider, is BE REALISTIC, and you and your child make sure to arrive at summer camp PREPARED. Talk to your camper’s counselors at the bus or ahead of time, to encourage healthy oral hygiene, including brushing AND flossing, and send enough floss, toothbrushes, toothpaste and maybe mouthwash for older campers, to last the summer. Encourage trying new, healthy foods! Encourage your camper to tell a counselor if they get injured or feel sick. And let your camper know that writing letters home is not old fashioned, and overnight camp is about having fun, even if it means still drinking your milk!