Summer Camps for Children with Special Needs
By: Marci Hersh, Teacher and Co Founder of Knowledge Safari, LLC (A social networking and review site for families who have children with special needs).
Summer camps tend to fill up fast so you need to get an early jump on your planning. Make sure that you’re doing plenty of research in the winter months so that your child doesn’t miss out on a great opportunity. There are so many types of camps including: sleep-away camps, day camps, religion based camps, camps specifically for special needs, focused camps (like art or music) and many more.
How do you choose the right type of camp for your child?
As the parent, you know your child best. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
Here are some other things to think about:
If you are considering a camp specifically for special needs, spend some time getting to know the camp, its owners and what type of activities will fill your child’s day. Determine if your child will be able to participate in the majority of activities and if any help, like a one-on-one aide will be needed and how that is handled. Does the camp employ adult counselors and what type of experience with special needs do they have?
If you are considering a community camp or one that is not specifically geared toward special needs, you will need dig a little deeper. One great thing about a local community camp is that it can be a way for him/her to become part of the community in general. But, you will need to make sure that your child’s need will be taken care of and that the camp experience will be fulfilling. What accommodations will be made for your child? What level of supervision can you expect? Do they think that your child will do well at their camp?
When determining a camp, one of the top considerations is why am I sending my child to camp? What do I want him/her to get out of the experience? Once you have the answers to these questions in mind it will be much easier to determine if the camp you are checking out fits the bill.
When considering a camp that is geared toward special needs, there is a certain level of expectation that you would naturally have that the activities will meet your child’s skills. The same cannot be said about a mainstream camp – that is not to say that they will not be accommodating – they very well might. However, your level of expectation has to be adjusted.
Whichever type of camp you choose, it would be helpful to talk to other parents who have sent their kids there before. Ask for references.
Choosing a Camp For Your Child with Special Needs
Who doesn’t have a good time in summer camp? Despite the mosquitoes, skunks, and the dreaded rainy day, we look back on those days of sports, swimming and campfires with fond memories. Even then, we knew we were making camp friendships that would last a lifetime. Every child should have such an experience.
The camp experience is even more important for children with special needs, because they gain self-confidence as they try and master new activities, and increased independence. Yet, there are other considerations that have to be taken into account.
How does a parent determine when their child with special needs is ready for camp?
Stephen Glicksman, Ph.D, a developmental pyschologist at Women’s League Community Residences with decades of experience in special needs camping, says that, “A bigger question might be, ‘How can parents know when they are ready to send their child to camp.’ If parents feel they can use a break to recharge their batteries or allow for some extra time to focus on the needs of their other children or each other, and the camp agrees that the child would fit in well to their program, then I think it’s worth giving camp a try.”
Finding the Right Camp
Gary Shulman is Program Director at Resources for Children with Special Needs (RCSN), an organization that helps families of children with special needs understand, navigate and access services for their children. He advises parents to visit the camp while in session to determine if it is suitable for their child. This can provide real insight into how a camp operates and what the camper population is like. If a visit is not possible, ask the camp to send a video.
It is important to inquire about medical staffing and training. How is medicine given? Can they handle other medical needs? Will parents be given the opportunity to train the staff to put on orthoses or use specialized equipment? In case of emergency, is there a medical facility nearby? How are a child’s dietary restrictions handled?
Find out whether your child’s various therapies can be continued over the summer, and if there is an approved special education program on campus.
Another positive sign is a high rate of returning staff members each summer. That usually means that there is sufficient support to give each child the attention and special care needed.
Mr. Shulman recommends joining a parent support group where members can share their children’s camping experiences and offer first-hand advice on the various options available.
Once parents decide on a camp, there are various ways to prepare their child for the experience. If the child hasn’t been away from home often, arrange for an overnight or weekend somewhere the child is comfortable, like a relative’s or good friend’s house. Some parents may worry that their child will be homesick being away from home for so long. “Homesickness is a normal part of the camp experience, and tends to come and go with most campers,” says Dr. Glickman. “It especially arises during downtime, such as when your child is going to sleep at night. The rest of the day, your child is having too much fun to be homesick.”
So what can parents do to help their child adjust? Most important is to choose a camp with a warm and supportive staff. Send a favorite object as a reminder of home, or a photo album the child can look at when thinking about home. Informing counselors about bedtime routines is helpful and can give a child comfort.
Special needs camps can be very expensive and not all parents can afford the luxury. There are some funding options available, but warns RCSN’s Gary Shulman, “The early bird catches the worm, or in this case the funding.”
Parents should contact their local Developmental Disability Service Office, which receives a small summer camp allowance from the office for People with Developmental Delays (OP-WDD). Be sure to submit applications for family reimbursement no later than December or January for the following summer.
Fraternal clubs or Rotary Clubs may provide summer camp grants. In addition, many camps have scholarships or sliding scale fees, or are willing to arrange manageable payment plans.
Dr. Glickman reminds us that ultimately, “your child is in camp to have fun. I have found that the best time is had, and the most growth occurs, when parents make sure to choose a camp for their child that can adequately meet their medical, social, nutritional, and behavioral needs, and then just let the camp do what they are trained to do: Show the campers a great time.”